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03/15/2011 01:59 PM

Rescue Workers Search for Survivors

Japan Facing 'Colossal Catastrophe'

By and Simone Utler

Half a million people are homeless, families wait for their loved ones and rescue workers continue the desperate search for survivors in the ruins: the situation in northeastern Japan is harrowing. Ten German nuclear technicians, however, can breathe a sigh of relief after returning safely home.

Otsuchi lies in ruins. Virtually no houses are still standing. Rubble, cars and twisted metal are piled up meters high. "This is probably the worst-affected town on the coast, there are some terrible pictures," says Patrick Fuller from the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC). "Almost the whole town has been washed away. Out of 17,000 residents, 9,500 are still missing. It is a colossal catastrophe."

Few houses were able to withstand the awesome power of the tsunami as it came flooding inland, Fuller -- working with a Japanese Red Cross emergency team in Iwate Prefecture -- told SPIEGEL ONLINE. There is no electricity and no running water as the authorities begin to recover the bodies. Nonetheless, some residents who fled the giant waves are already returning to Otsuchi. The shock only really sets in when they realize their homes are simply gone.

"It will take years to rebuild this town," adds Fuller, who has worked for the Red Cross for 20 years. He reveals that the only comparable scenes were those following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. "The worst thing is the extraordinary extent of the damage and the despair -- in such a developed country like Japan," the 47-year-old said over the phone. He sounds exhausted. "It is really disturbing and frightening. But that does not matter too much now: We are here to help."

There are still tens of thousands of people missing in northeastern Japan. According to the army, soldiers have managed to save 10,000 people, but at least as many are feared to be casualties in Miyagi Prefecture alone. Rescue workers recovered around 2,000 bodies there on Monday, pushing the number of deaths confirmed by the police to more than 3,600. Numerous teams from abroad are helping the 100,000 Japanese soldiers carry out the rescue work.

Exhausted Doctors Sleep Side by Side with the Wounded

In Ishinomaki, previously home to 165,000 people, the situation is critical after the earthquake and ensuing tsunami devastated the city. Rescue workers are in a "desperate race against time" to save anyone who may still be trapped under the rubble, Fuller says. In the Red Cross hospital, no space is going unused: "Exhausted doctors are sleeping side by side with the injured." More and more injured are being brought in, some able to walk, others being carried.

The port city of Kamaishi was also partly destroyed by the tsunami: A cargo ship has been thrown onto the waterfront, people stumble over piles of rubble and rescue workers use sniffer dogs to search for survivors. The waves which swept through the city in Iwate Prefecture were several meters high. Some residents were able to save themselves by getting to buildings or areas which were higher up.

Management consultant Oliver Bolzer has been following the news from this region of Japan with particular care, as his girlfriend's family live in the city. "We have had no contact with them," the 31-year-old, who lives in Tokyo, tells SPIEGEL ONLINE. But he is optimistic that they are okay. "They live on a hill along from where the terrible images are coming from. I'm pretty sure their houses will still be standing."

"It's Our Job"

Rescue efforts in many affected places have been hampered because of roads made impassable by destruction, landslide or floods. Telephone connections are still very unreliable and even satellite communications break down frequently.

"We can assess the risk. We trust our operations center. It's our job," said Daniel Riedel from Germany's federal emergency relief agency, the Technisches Hilfswerk (THW), in remarks to German news channel N24. The THW team arrived on Sunday and set up their camp around 50 kilometers north of Sendai. On Monday, the Germans had been due to start their rescue work but it was cancelled following a major aftershock and fresh tsunami warning. A spokesman from THW headquarters said they had had trouble contacting their team on the ground. So that people like Oliver Bolzer and his girlfriend can search for missing loved ones, the government and phone companies have set up an electronic messaging system, a kind of answering machine. "If you are missing someone, you can call this number, leave a message and you may find messages left by others," Bolzer explains. Public telephones have been set up in the camps for displaced people in the disaster zone. "Many people are also using People Finder from Google or Twitter," Bolzer adds.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 500,000 people have been forced into shelters. On Monday, at least 1.4 million had no access to drinking water, 2.6 million had to make do without electricity and 3.2 million ran out of cooking gas. Food and petrol were also getting scarce.

In the city of Sendai, residents were queuing patiently for food. In the parking lot of a supermarket which had reopened, employees handed out rationed supplies. Each customer could buy a maximum of two grapefruits, two oranges, five bags of chips, two cans of tuna and some chocolate. There were also long lines of people by the few telephones.

Six Hours by Car to Travel 100 km

Many people have been fleeing from the northeast of the country towards Tokyo. "It took us six hours to travel a distance of around 100 kilometers," businessman William Ahrens says. In the morning, he set out with his wife on the two-lane road, but repeatedly became stuck in traffic jams by gas stations. "There was hardly any traffic in the other direction."

Ahrens and his wife had decided to make the trip to Tokyo, after some initial hesitation, because they worried about the nuclear accident. They only packed what was absolutely necessary: Two suitcases and two trolley bags, telephone records, insurance documents and clothing. In addition, they packed blankets, a futon, food and drink into their black Mercedes. "However, I had the feeling that the other cars were not so full. It looked like business people," Ahrens told SPIEGEL ONLINE. In Tokyo, the mood was visibly more relaxed.

Japanese airlines have also been reacting to the crisis, putting more planes on routes between Tokyo and airports in the north which have not been destroyed. "Japan Airlines has set up 20 to 30 extra flights a day to the region -- which are fully booked in both directions," Bolzer says. Some people simply want to leave the area, while others are desperate to get back to their homes. "In Tokyo itself, I cannot find any great anxiety."

However, some residents in the capital are already turning their attentions further south. "In our small supermarket, several people from Tokyo have bought food today," says Irina Scheibal, who lives on the island of Oshima, about 100 kilometers south of the capital. Products like instant noodles, soups and rice have been in particular demand.

Pure Fear

While victims and rescue workers struggle to cope with the disaster in Japan, 10 German nuclear technicians spoke about an experience that will stay with them as long as they live: the immense threat of an earthquake. "The first thought is pure fear, the second thought is pure fear, the third thought is pure fear," says 34-year-old Gordon Hueni.

He and nine other employees of the firm Areva had been setting up tests on welding joints in the disconnected Block 4 of the Fukushima 1 nuclear power complex and were in the control room of the reactor when the earthquake hit. What they found impressive was that no panic broke out among the 700 to 1,000 people working in the complex at the time: "The Japanese were very, very calm."

The 10 technicians were able to first get to the safety of the power station's main building before escaping the tsunami by fleeing inland. "We were in a reception center in a small mountain village," Hueni says. With the help of the German Foreign Ministry and their company, the 10 men were finally able to reach Tokyo and then leave the country. They do not have any more details about the state of the nuclear plant after the tremor, however. They were checked for contamination -- but no increased exposure to radiation was discovered.

On Monday, the group returned safely to their homes. "We flew to Japan with 10 employees and came back with 10 employees," Hueni adds. "When you consider that we have been through several earthquakes and a tsunami, that's absolutely astonishing."

With wires

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