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Fukushima Police Perspective: The tough task of dealing with bereaved families (Pt. 2)

Police officers carry a body on April 29, 2011, in the Fukushima Prefecture town of Okuma. (Photo courtesy of Fukushima Prefectural Police)

I was on a train that had stopped at JR Shiroishi Station in Miyagi Prefecture when the powerful earthquake struck on March 11, 2011.

    I was on my way back to Futaba Police Station in Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, via JR Tomioka Station after completing a supplementary course for newly recruited police officers at a police academy. I was anxious as I thought about becoming a fully fledged police officer.

    However, the impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake was so huge that I forgot about such concerns. Train services were suspended, and I was unable to return to Futaba Police Station on that day. Moreover, an explosion occurred at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant the following day.

    We officers at Futaba Police Station began to work at the disaster task force set up in a meeting room of the Kawamata branch office of Fukushima Police Station.

    I was tasked with responding to the bereaved families of disaster victims. Specifically, I was responsible for identifying the bodies of victims who died in tsunami and handing their bodies over to their bereaved families.

    Futaba Police Station's morgue was set up at a vacant lot in the Fukushima Prefecture city of Soma where a company office had previously stood.

    It was the first challenge for me as a police officer who had just graduated from the police academy.

    Bereaved families appeared to be able to identify their loved ones even if the victims' bodies were badly damaged. When I guided bereaved family members to the bodies of the victims, most of them instantly recognized their loved ones just by the outlines of their faces. Most of them said things like, "It's certainly my son," and embraced the coffins and burst into tears. I was left speechless to see such tragic scenes.

    Police handed over the victims' bodies to their bereaved families after confirming their identities through DNA tests and dental charts.

    Since it took several days before the identities of the bodies were confirmed, many bereaved families grilled us over why we could not hand over the bodies of their loved ones even though they were sure about their identities.

    We were working hard to hand over victims' bodies to their families as early as possible. But it would be a serious problem if we were to mistake one body for another. As such, we had no choice but to explain the need to conduct DNA tests and patiently try to persuade them to wait until the identities of victims' bodies were confirmed.

    At the morgue, I saw numerous victims' bodies and met bereaved families -- a man who lost his wife, a child whose parents died in the disaster and a person who lost all of their family members.

    There were some bereaved families whose unfocused anger exploded at the morgue.

    "Why couldn't you have found my loved one's body before it was so badly damaged?" one of them said.

    "Hasn't my child been found yet? Are you properly conducting search operations? another said.

    I was unable to say anything to them, and had no choice but to listen what they had to say until their anger subsided.

    Many others tearfully asked me whether their family members who died in tsunami suffered when they were engulfed by waves.

    I said to them, "It was such a massive tsunami. I think they immediately lost consciousness and didn't even have time to suffer." I was unsure whether it was true, but I had no choice but to say such things.

    All these family members said, "I'm relieved to hear that" and shed tears. Such words were the only relief for me at the time.

    I saw some bereaved family members who visited the morgue on a daily basis to search for the bodies of their loved ones, others who held the bodies of their deceased family members and cried and others who vented their grievances at us.

    The grief of those who lost their loved ones and other important things in the disasters, and the grievances and anger that bereaved families could not vent on anybody appeared to have coexisted with the silently sleeping spirits of the victims at the morgue where I worked. These issues generated huge amounts of emotion and struck me hard. (By Yuya Sato, aged in his 20s, at Futaba Police Station, August 2011)

    Police wash the clothing of people who passed away, in the Fukushima Prefecture city of Soma, on May 1, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Fukushima Prefectural Police)

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