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Fukushima Police Perspective: Fighting against radiation (Pt. 6)

Police officers clad in protective suits search the Ukedo district of Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, which falls under a zone within a radius of 10 kilometers from the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, on April 14, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Fukushima Prefectural Police)

A surprising fax message was sent to a police station in Fukushima Prefecture where I worked as an officer at the time of the outbreak of the nuclear crisis in 2011.

    "We appoint you as chief of the safety management support unit," the message said.

    I was filled with concerns and fears. I remembered the faces of my wife and 18-month-old daughter.

    The "safety management support unit," which I had never heard of, is a team responsible for measuring radiation levels in preparation for searching for missing people around the crippled nuclear power plant. The unit was formed less than two weeks after hydrogen explosions occurred one after another at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.

    I underwent a training program and was briefed about my duty because the unit was the first of its kind in Japan. Still, I was unable to dispel my concerns and fears. I have a license to work with X-rays and have some knowledge about radiation. Nevertheless, I wondered whether it would be safe to go to places where radiation levels were not known and whether radiation would adversely affect my health.

    However, if I had mentioned that, I was afraid that it would amplify my concerns and fears so I patiently endured my anxieties.

    I was unable to tell my family, who were taking shelter away from our home about my mission. However, I told the truth to my father just in case.

    When I first worked at the unit, I pretended to be calm although my face may have shown my fear.

    I went into areas within a 20- and 30-kilometer radius of the atomic power station and measured radiation levels at fixed points. I saw nobody in these zones. Even though I drove a long distance, I did not see any other cars. These areas were silent.

    A roaming cow shot out in front of my car and I nearly hit it. I felt as if I were unable to tell whether what I saw was a dream or reality.

    I was ordered to measure radiation levels in preparation for search operations for missing people in the Ukedo district of Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, close to the nuclear plant. The area was hit particularly hard by tsunami generated by the quake.

    The area is situated just east of National Route 6 that runs from north to south. The area had been abandoned since the disaster.

    When I arrived at the scene, I felt as if my heart had been squeezed by someone, and I grabbed the steering wheel and applied the brakes.

    I saw a 4- to 5-meter pile of rubble on the bank of a local river. After passing the area, I felt as if my heart had been squeezed even more strongly. It was just like a battlefield I saw in a photo carried in a school textbook.

    Buildings had been swept away even though their groundwork still remained. The second-floor part of a house had rolled over and several ships had overturned on rice paddies. Ropes and fishing nets, which got stuck on buildings that managed to survive the tsunami, were swaying in the wind. The asphalt on the road felt extremely light and had actually come off like cloth.

    I could hardly believe it was the reality in front of me.

    Radiation levels were low enough and search operations were launched the following day.

    The phrase, "A body has been found," was repeated on police radio. The goggles I was wearing were filled with my own tears when I saw the body of a child as young as my own daughter. A baby carrier remained on the child's body. A body believed to be that of the baby's mother was also found nearby. The scene reminded me of my daily life with my wife and child. I remembered my daughter's smile and the warmth of my family. I could not stop crying.

    Many other police officers who were also involved in search operations shed tears and endured hardships during their duties.

    It is still fresh in my memory that I felt the situation was mortifying rather than sad.

    The child I saw must have been cheerfully laughing and playing before the tsunami struck.

    I wondered why that happened to the child and who was at fault. It was mortifying and I did not know what to do. I was filled with unbearable and unfocused feelings.

    However, my concerns and fears changed to pride and a sense of mission. I said to myself that returning the bodies of victims to their families was the first step toward helping the bereaved families to overcome the disasters and move forward, and that I was playing a role in doing so. (By Hiroki Mori, aged in his 20s, at Tamura Police Station, August 2011)

    Police officers undergo screening in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, after finishing their search operations on April 29, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Fukushima Prefectural Police)

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