FROM THE ARCHIVES: Tsunami survivor's frantic search for four children and teacher

This story first appeared in The Straits Times on March 10, 2012

ON SITE: Okawa Elementary School before (in a framed photo) the tsunami swept in and killed 74 people. - ST FILE PHOTO: JOYCE FANG
ON SITE: Okawa Elementary School before (in a framed photo) the tsunami swept in and killed 74 people. - ST FILE PHOTO: JOYCE FANG
ON SITE: Okawa Elementary School after the tsunami swept in and killed 74 people. A shrine has been set up outside the destroyed school. -- ST FILE PHOTO: JOYCE FANG
DETERMINED: Mrs Naomi Hiratsuka, 37, learnt to operate an excavator while searching for her 12-year-old daughter Koharu. Her daughter’s body was found five months after the tsunami swept through Okawa Elementary School in March last year. Mrs Hiratsuka is now searching for four children and a teacher whose bodies have not been recovered.  -- ST FILE PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

ISHINOMAKI (Miyagi prefecture) - The wind that blows in off the Kitakami River is bitter and there is snow in the air, but Mrs Naomi Hiratsuka does not appear to notice it. She is focused on one sole aim: to recover the bodies of four children and a teacher who are still missing one year after they were killed by the tsunami that roared up this valley from the ocean.

Mrs Hiratsuka, who is petite and soft-spoken, was reunited with the body of her own daughter, 12-year-old Koharu, on Aug 8 but has vowed not to rest until all the children of Okawa Elementary School are accounted for.

"This is what I do now," she says, pointing at the bright yellow digger that she learnt to operate in order to look for her daughter.

"In the morning, I make breakfast for my two other children, I pack them off to school and then I come here and dig for the whole day," she says. "I take a break for lunch and then start again. When it gets dark, I go home and make dinner for the family."

"That is my life now," she adds, with a resigned shrug.

The school was the scene of one of the biggest tragedies played out on the day of Japan's worst natural disaster in living memory, triggered by a magnitude-9 earthquake that struck off the coast of the Tohoku region.

Koharu was among the 70 children killed in the school when the wave breached the protective dyke and engulfed them.

Once the water had subsided, the Hiratsukas and dozens of other parents began digging through the debris in search of their children.

After her husband had to return to work, Mrs Hiratsuka rented machinery from the city government in Ishinomaki to continue to search for the dead.

But time is running out.

One year on, work to clear the debris of the community that surrounded the school has nearly been completed. The piles of jagged concrete and twisted cars are getting smaller as they are hauled away. Only the shell of the school remains, taped off and with a makeshift shrine to the memory of the children by its main entrance.

Mrs Hiratsuka and the other parents want the search to continue and finally convinced the city authorities to dam a 2km stretch of a tributary of the river that had not been searched previously.

Huge sandbags block both ends of the tributary with pipes trailing over the top expelling the water. Some 20m wide, the riverbed is of stinking black mud littered with fishing equipment, plastic bottles and the occasional lump of masonry or steel.

This is where the search for the missing children is going on, but the city has told the parents that the dam must be reopened as heavy rainfall has filled a pond at the head of the stream. There is not enough time to complete the search.

"We have pleaded with them not to open the dam as we have not been able to properly search this area," Mrs Hiratsuka says. "In all, they have not done enough for us. They did not offer the families counselling after the disaster and what little they have done is too little, too late."

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