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For survivors of Japan's quake, tsunami, it's almost too much to comprehend

HIGASHI MATSUSHIMA, Japan — Outside the public gymnasium here, on a hill about a mile from the Pacific Ocean, survivors of the tsunami came and went all day on Monday, searching for the dead.

Two hundred and sixteen sheets of paper were stuck on a wall, one for every body brought to the gym so far, some with names, most bearing only physical descriptions. Hands anxiously clutched to mouths, people pored over them until, finding nothing, most turned away in relief. Syunsuke Doi, 22, did not.

At noon, Doi heaved great sobs on the gym's steps, head in hands. He was at work when the wave drove inland Friday. His childhood sweetheart and wife, Sayaka, 22, was at home with their 2-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son.

Searchers found their bodies over the weekend, in the family car in which they were trying to escape.

"I'd been looking everywhere, but I couldn't find them," Doi said. "I didn't want to believe it, but I came here — and it's my wife and my children."

Doi's father, Jinichi Doi, said his daughter-in-law had agreed to flee to an evacuation center with him minutes after last Friday's enormous earthquake, only to stop at her parents' house along the way to pick up some milk. "She didn't come to the meeting point," he said.

Across northeastern Japan, the colossal physical devastation wrought by Friday's tsunami humbles all adjectives. Yet the colossal physical havoc might be matched by the wrecked lives left in the tsunami's wake. Here are some of their stories.

SOMA

The second his mother takes her eyes off him, the 3-year-old boy darts across the room, a gymnasium near city hall that serves as temporary home to about 500 newly homeless Japanese. He weaves around the older evacuees and leaps over small stacks of blankets. Tanaka Yurie quickly gives chase, smiling the entire way.

In a sense, Tanaka figures, little Somo and his 2-year-old sister, Mao, saved her life. She had walked out the door Friday just a few minutes before the tsunami washed over her home town of Minamisoma, about 25 miles south of Soma.

"If I hadn't gone to pick them up from preschool, I would have been swallowed whole by waves," said Tanaka, 25.

She was able to return to Minamisoma over the weekend to check on her home. Seven people had lived there, including the parents and grandparents of her husband, a fisherman. The house had been in his family for 40 years and, like many in the town of about 75,000 people, it had vanished completely.

"It was like nothing was ever there," she said. "I couldn't cry. The shock was too big. I didn't know how to react."

FUKUSHIMA CITY

The supermarket was set to open on Monday at 10 a.m. The first customers showed up at 7.

Soon, several hundred were waiting to buy rice, instant noodles and other goods. Store manager Hidenori Chonan said the store didn't have many supplies left — and electricity had already cut out.

"We don't know when the next supply would come," Chonan said. "We are selling all products at (discounted prices) and losing money. But at a time like this we help each other."

"We have security to avoid confusion, but there is no sign of people trying to break into our store, or anything like that," Chonan said.

"Of course some complain about lining up or having limits on how much they can buy, but we all know what the situation is and we all feel each other's pain."

SAITO

It's hard to believe there was ever a village here at all.

The tsunami rolled in through a tree-lined ocean cove and obliterated nearly everything in its path in this village of about 250 people and 70 or so houses.

Now, three days later, Saito is a moonscape of death and debris. There is no electricity, no running water. There are no generators humming. The night is pitch black. The buildings still standing are closed. No stores are open. Everything has stopped.

"There is nothing left," villager Toshio Abe said Monday as firefighters hacked through the vast wasteland with pickaxes, searching not for survivors but for the dead. Abe said at least 40 of Saito's people were dead or unaccounted for.

Abe said he was gardening Friday afternoon when he felt the earth shake under his feet. Tsunami sirens blared and a loudspeaker announcement warned people to get to higher ground.

The 70-year-old frantically climbed a hill behind his home about a mile from the beach. From his safe vantage point, he watched as, 20 or 30 minutes later, the giant wave arrived with a thunderous roar.

He saw it rise up, over and through a bridge and smash into scores of houses, ripping most apart instantly. Other houses, he said, were pulled from their foundations and slammed together. Hills on both sides channeled the wave another half mile or so inland, depositing the broken wooden insides of Saito's homes along the road.

"I never thought a tsunami would come this far inland," Abe said. "I thought we were safe."

Abe pointed to a battered concrete foundation amid the flattened landscape. It was his own house. "I will rebuild it," he said, "but not here."

YURIAGE

Hisako Tanno, 50, was working at a warehouse when the earthquake struck. She rushed home to get her 77-year-old father. As she parked in front of her home, she heard screams. She looked down the street to see a "mountain of garbage" moving down the street at her. It was the wave.

"I only had time to grab my bag and run," Tanno said.

Her neighbors called to her from their home, and she ran up to their second floor. Then she remembered she had left her father. She could see her house from the window. When the wave hit, it smashed the sliding doors. Then, to her horror, she saw her father swept outside. The water was by now the height of a one-story building. She saw him grab the ironwork on her home's second-story balcony and hold on.

"He was trying to pull himself up, but he has a bad leg," she said. As the water surged, her father was able to somehow hoist himself over the metal railing and onto the balcony. There he held onto for dear life.

"I didn't know he had it in him," she said. "He wanted so badly to live that he found that last burst of strength."

NOBIRU

Akiko Sato, 50, fought to persuade her aged parents to evacuate, but they would not. As she packed a bag in her own Nobiru home, just steps away, she looked out the window. "I couldn't believe what I saw," she said. "It looked like almost hundreds of thousands of horses running towards me, like a computer simulation game."

"When it knocked down the house next to me, I said, 'Oh, it's my turn,' " she said. But instead of leveling the house, the wave carried her into a corner, and her air-filled down jacket helped her float out a window.

There she clung to an awning until the wave receded.

It is a blue-moon instance of good news; Ms. Sato is looking forward to reuniting with her husband and son in Sendai. But she is also waiting for news that is unlikely to be good.

"I wonder if my parents survived," Ms. Sato said. "Everything is like a dream. But there's nothing I can do about it."

SENDAI

The Rigoletto Tapas Bar, an eatery that normally offers fine wines and Spanish delicacies, is now an upscale — and expensive — soup kitchen.

There were no beggars or homeless refugees here — just well-heeled, but still hungry, Japanese willing to pay nearly $20 for a paper cup full of soup and a slice of tepid pizza. In a city of 1 million that now has little electricity or gasoline and where nearly all restaurants and shops are closed, survival is not ruled by the law of the jungle, but by the orderly rhythms of very long queues.

With roads blocked, supplies depleted and power extremely scarce, even the most basic quest for food or supplies can turn into an hours-long odyssey. The city is slowly seizing up.

A fashionable young man waiting for soup and pizza Monday explained that he spends much of his day lining up. "We do nothing but wait," he said. Even charging his mobile phone, that indispensable accessory of modern life, requires standing in a long line.

The center of Sendai is now dotted with specially designated charging areas — tables equipped with power cables and electrical sockets.

NATORI

Toshio Otomo, 69, walked unsteadily over piles of rubble on hesitant legs, through caked mud, around a broken wall, in hopes of finding her home of 30 years. The home in which her two children were raised. The home whose garden held her beloved husband's grave.

Otomo, along with her children and granddaughter, struggled to figure out just where their house actually stood amid the devastation.

"It's back there somewhere," Otomo said, pointing at a 10-foot-high pile of slanted roofing, beams, splinters and plastic. "It's gone. How can it just be gone?"

The Otomo family were working and shopping on higher ground in Sendai, 20 minutes away by car, when the earth shook Friday. In some ways, seeing they had no house left and nothing to salvage has helped clarify their plans for the future, said Toshio's son, Junichi, 43.

They will try and forget the past, he said, and walk away from it all.

But Toshio, isn't quite so ready to just walk away. She leans down to look at photos in a cheap plastic album half-buried in the mud before realizing they're actually of another family.

"A baby," she says absent-mindedly. "Someone else's baby."

TOKYO

With the Japanese government mandating a series of rolling blackouts of three hours at a time, many Japanese companies and residential complexes took further steps to cut energy usage. Many stores reduced their hours. Trains ran on limited schedules. At a crosswalk in front of Tokyo's Shibuya train station — usually a riot of lights and noise — massive video screens were turned off, and pedestrians moved in silence.

Information from Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and AP was used in this report.

For survivors of Japan's quake, tsunami, it's almost too much to comprehend 03/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 2:26am]

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