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Court ruling anticipated on responsibility of school over student tsunami deaths

SENDAI -- A ruling is expected on Oct. 26 at the Sendai District Court over a case on the responsibility of authorities for the disaster at Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, where 74 students died or went missing in tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake.

    Relatives of 23 of the deceased students have sued the Ishinomaki Municipal Government and the Miyagi Prefectural Government, seeking 2.3 billion yen in compensation. At issue are the questions of whether the school should have been able to predict the tsunami and whether the evacuation of the students was conducted properly.

    According to sources, including a report by a third-party investigation committee set up by the Ishinomaki Municipal Government, around five minutes after the earthquake on March 11, 2011, the school evacuated the students to the school playground. About 50 minutes after the earthquake, the school began moving the students to land along the Kitakami River located about 6 meters higher than where they were. Just after setting out, however, they were hit by tsunami. Seventy-four of the 78 students fell victim to the tsunami, as did 10 of the 11 teachers.

    The bereaved families allege that the school should have been able to predict the tsunami because, among other things, a warning for a massive tsunami had been broadcast, municipal government cars were calling for evacuation to higher ground, and a parent who had heard there could be a tsunami of over 10 meters had asked the teachers to evacuate the students to the mountains.

    The municipal government argues that it could not predict the tsunami, saying, among other things, that the school was not in an area predicted to be hit by tsunami on the city's hazard map, the school was a designated evacuation shelter in case of a tsunami, the Kamaya district where the school is located had not been hit by tsunami for the past few hundred years, and the area as a whole was hit hard, not just the school, with many local residents dying.

    The relatives of the students also maintain that if the teachers had evacuated the children to the mountains at the back of the school, everyone would have survived. In fiscal 2007, the school created an earthquake emergency response manual, and three years later a tsunami response was added, but the bereaved families say that the school failed to consider specifically where to evacuate.

    In response, the municipal government argues that the slopes of the mountains at the back of the school were too steep, had a danger of fallen trees and mudslides, and were not a viable choice for an evacuation destination. It also argues that the manual was fine and the school faculty followed the evacuation procedures as they had trained to do.

    In other similar court cases, relatives of five children at Hiyori Kindergarten in Ishinomaki, who died in the disaster, won their case against the kindergarten at the Sendai District Court. A settlement was then reached between the two sides at the Sendai High Court. On the other hand, in a lawsuit over the deaths of 12 employees at the 77 Bank's Onagawa branch in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, the Supreme Court ruled against the relatives of the victims, saying the bank's decision to evacuate its employees to the roof of the branch building was reasonable as it could not have predicted a tsunami high enough to overcome the building.

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