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Fukushima Police Perspective: Trying to escape from a tsunami-hit patrol car (Pt. 1)

A bus is submerged by water in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 18, 2011, after being engulfed by tsunami waves. (Photo courtesy of Fukushima Prefectural Police)

Fukushima Prefectural Police officers and their family members published their memoirs about the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and ensuing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant about a year after the disasters.

    The memoirs record how police officers and others responded to the triple disasters and how they felt at the time. The memoirs vividly record conversations shortly after the earthquake and tsunami and the hardships officers experienced during rescue operations they engaged in while their own family members remained unaccounted for.

    On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the triple disasters, The Mainichi is carrying eight stories selected from the memoirs from March 9 to March 16.

    When the disasters struck, there were 3,746 workers with the Fukushima Prefectural Police force, including officers. Four of them died while responding to the disasters and another remains missing.

    Police officers are engaged in rescue work in an area near Iwaki South Police Station, which was flooded by tsunami on March 11, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Fukushima Prefectural Police)

    In Fukushima Prefecture, 1,613 people lost their lives to the disasters and 197 remain unaccounted for as of Jan. 31, 2016.

    ***

    When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in 2011, I was on police patrol in the city of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, to communicate with local residents, as an officer assigned to the Kusano police box. I was at a restaurant when I was hit by a violent temblor.

    As soon as the earthquake stopped, a serious warning of a massive tsunami was issued. I headed to a coastal area in a police car with a colleague to guide local residents and vehicles to flee and confirm how roads and other places were damaged by the disaster.

    Roads along the coastline were badly damaged, and there were many places where no one could pass. Since there were many people who were panicking, we continually urged people through loudspeakers on the police car to flee to higher ground.

    During our activities along the coast, massive tsunami waves plowed over levees. The police car we were in floated as it was swept along by the waves. There was nothing we could do.

    The police car came to a halt after hitting a tree along a road, but tsunami waves continued to swamp us. I saw water violently flow outside the windows of the vehicle like a waterfall. The car almost sunk. It was at that moment that I felt for the first time in my life that I was going to die.

    I thought, "I'm going to die shortly. I can no longer see my family," and I was unable to believe the circumstances I was placed under.

    I did not want to die, so I made up my mind to break the windows to escape from the car using a device in the vehicle. I wondered whether I should do this out of fear that I could be washed away by tsunami waves if I got out of the police car. But finally, I managed to survive by climbing to the tree from the roof of the vehicle.

    After the tsunami waves receded, I walked to my police box in my drenched uniform.

    Full-scale searches for those who went missing got under way the following day. I was involved in search operations every day. At the scene, I faced risks of aftershocks and further tsunami and being exposed to radiation leaking from the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.

    In particular, in the first week I was working under harsh conditions. I had neither a break nor proper meals. Of course, there were no restrooms. While I was randomly searching one area, a fire brigade member and a Self-Defense Forces member spoke to me saying, "A body was found." One resident spoke to me saying, "My daughter is trapped under the rubble. Please help me search for her." Search and rescue work was quite tough for me both physically and mentally.

    Looking back on what we did, there are many points I should reflect on and many lessons learned from rescue operations.

    One of them is my lack of knowledge about natural disasters.

    I had not thought that tsunami would bring about such extensive damage. If I had profound knowledge about natural disasters, I would not have been engulfed by tsunami and could have done more to help local residents and others.

    I have learnt that police officers should try to acquire knowledge to be fully prepared to cope with natural disasters and simulate what kinds of actions they should take if such disasters were to occur. Such efforts are necessary to not only help those who are at disaster scenes take appropriate and safe action but also for high-ranking officers to issue appropriate instructions to officers at disaster scenes. (By Ayanori Kanno, aged in his 20s, at Iwaki Central Police Station, August 2011)

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