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Fukushima Police Perspective: Officers are also disaster victims (Pt. 8)

The Tottori Prefectural Police helicopter "Sakyu" ("Dune") flies over a tsunami-ravaged area in Fukushima Prefecture to search for missing people on March 28, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Fukushima Prefectural Police)

Officers belonging to the Nagano Prefectural Police force's investigation divisions were ordered to go to Fukushima Prefecture late on the night of March 11, 2011, after the Great East Japan Earthquake struck.

    At 11 p.m., I received a call from the investigation planning division saying, "Officers with the force's investigation divisions have been ordered to go to Fukushima Prefecture."

    We immediately gathered at the Nagano Prefectural Police headquarters in the city of Nagano. The team of 10 officers -- seven with the First Criminal Investigation Division including me, two with the Identification Division and one with the Personnel and Training Division -- was summoned to the headquarters. We loaded the necessary equipment into four vehicles and hurriedly left for Fukushima after contacting the second security division chief.

    While driving along an expressway, we were ordered to wait after a large earthquake occurred in Sakae, northern Nagano Prefecture. All members of the team were worried about their families they left behind. At one point, we thought we would be ordered to return to Nagano, but we left for Fukushima after the order to wait was lifted an hour later.

    After entering Fukushima Prefecture the following morning, we saw that the road had risen at some points and caved in at other places, and truly felt that we had entered a disaster-hit area. Our mobile phones were not working but we managed to communicate with Fukushima Prefectural Police using a satellite mobile phone. Shortly after 10 a.m. on March 12, we arrived at the prefectural police's security center, where we received the necessary equipment before heading to the city of Minamisoma to conduct autopsies on the bodies of victims.

    Few people were seen in Minamisoma. But while we were waiting at a traffic light, a local resident approached our vehicle, gave us some sweets and encouraged us to work hard to assist in relief operations.

    At 2 p.m., we arrived at the gymnasium of a high school to conduct autopsies, and found that the facility was filled with bereaved families of victims, police officers and fire brigade members among others.

    Osaka Prefectural Police officers dispatched to the disaster-ravaged areas search a river in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 22, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Fukushima Prefectural Police)

    The bodies of numerous victims were placed on the gymnasium's floor and coffins were piled up. We saw bodies brought into the gymnasium one after another. We were shocked at the tragic scene and felt a sense of responsibility for our duty.

    We immediately began autopsies on the bodies of victims. Many people came in and out of the gymnasium and some bereaved family members were crying, but we worked feverishly. All the bodies were covered with mud. We carefully wiped the bodies to remove mud and continued autopsies while confirming their belongings. We were determined to return the bodies to their bereaved families as early as possible.

    We ate rice balls prepared at the scene, cup noodles and prepared quick-cooking rice for dinner, and stayed overnight at the school's training hall. Late at night, a family of four -- the parents, a baby and a grandmother -- visited the training hall.

    The grandmother said, "Where are we? We live within 20 kilometers from the nuclear plant, but we escaped because we feared radiation. We were looking for a shelter but were unable to find one. I saw a light on here so we dropped by."

    They appeared so worried that we felt that areas around the atomic power station were in a tragic situation and that residents in these areas were facing extreme hardships. The family left the school after staying at the training hall overnight.

    We continued autopsies the following day. Relief assistant teams from Osaka, Hyogo and Gunma prefectural police also arrived in Fukushima and about 150 officers were involved in autopsies.

    The number of doctors and dentists involved in autopsies gradually increased, and the work appeared to be going smoothly.

    However, the situation drastically changed on March 14, when a hydrogen explosion occurred at the No. 3 reactor building of Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, forcing residents in areas within 20 kilometers from the power plant to be ordered to stay indoors.

    Therefore, search operations slowed down and the number of bodies brought into the gymnasium sharply decreased. The head of the identification division, who was responsible for the operations, was monitoring dosimeters he had fixed to his body. On March 15, the zone where people were ordered to stay indoors was expanded to cover areas 30 kilometers from the nuclear plant. We were ordered to prevent ourselves from being exposed to radiation.

    We continued autopsies inside the gymnasium while being prepared to evacuate in case of emergency.

    We received a phone call from the Nagano Prefectural Police headquarters asking us about the situation in which we were working. The force subsequently sent protective suits and dosimeters. We were encouraged by such logistical support from the police force to work hard.

    The last body that was brought into the gymnasium on March 17 was that of a Fukushima police officer who died while on duty. He was reportedly engulfed by tsunami generated by the quake while on duty along the coast. Fukushima Prefectural Police conducted an autopsy on the body while all who were at the gymnasium were watching over the work. After the work was completed, all of us offered a silent prayer. His co-workers surrounded the body and shed tears. I felt that police officers were also disaster victims.

    I also heard that there are many police officers whose relatives remained unaccounted for and whose parents' homes were destroyed by tsunami. A Fukushima police officer tearfully told me that these officers were working hard to respond to the disaster regardless of their families' hardships. I understood their feelings and bowed my head to their sense of mission.

    We completed our seven-day duty in Fukushima on March 18 and were replaced by another team dispatched by the Nagano police force. We left Fukushima for home as the head of the Fukushima Prefectural Police Criminal Investigation Bureau, head of the Identification Division and other officers of the Fukushima police saw us off. (By Hiroshi Kanbayashi, aged in his 50s, Nagano Prefectural Police First Criminal Investigation Division)

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