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After court ruling, families of Okawa Elementary tsunami dead vow continued investigation

Hiroyuki Konno is seen during a press conference in Sendai's Aoba Ward on Oct. 26, 2016. The photo of his son, Daisuke, who was among Okawa Elementary School students who were killed or went missing in the March 2011 tsunami, is seen in the background at right. (Mainichi)

Bereaved families of students at Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, killed in the March 2011 tsunami, renewed their pledges to keep investigating the school's disaster response after a court awarded 1.4 billion yen in damages to the families of 23 of the victims on Oct. 26.

"It is a ruling that will lead to saving lives in the future. Although our children will never return to us, if the ruling can prevent accidents and protect lives, that will mean that our children made a mark on the world," said a teary Hiroyuki Konno, 54, who lost his 12-year-old son Daisuke to the tsunami, in front of the Sendai District Court on Oct. 26.

In ordering the Ishinomaki Municipal Government and the Miyagi Prefectural Government to compensate the families, the court recognized the city-run school's failure to evacuate the children to safety. A total of 74 students and 10 staff perished or went missing after waves engulfed the area following the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

While the plaintiffs hailed the court ruling -- which clearly determined that the school should have protected the children even in the face of a tsunami that was far larger than projected -- they once again vowed to continue looking into the school's disaster prevention protocol, saying, "We will never allow such a tragic mistake to happen again."

Konno, who headed the plaintiffs' group, lost three children including Daisuke to the tsunami. He has revealed that he quarrels with his wife constantly, and that they are continuing fertility treatment as they want to have more children. He quit an electric equipment company in May 2014, two months after he filed the lawsuit along with other bereaved families, on the grounds that he "couldn't cause trouble to the company."

One of Daisuke's surviving classmates once told Konno, "Dai-chan (Daisuke) and others were pleading with tears, saying, 'Let's flee to the mountain'" -- words that still lingering in Konno's ears.

"I wish I could go back to that day and save my son. I wish I could have at least died with him," Konno said.

At a news conference following the ruling, Konno asked, "Can you imagine the children who had to die even as they feared losing their lives?" He continued, "It's a matter of course for schools to protect children, as they are entrusted with their lives. The ruling only confirmed that fact by means of justice. I'm determined that the real verification work will begin after the trial is over."

Mitsuhiro Sato, 55, who lost his 9-year-old son Kenta to the disaster, also told reporters, "What we have done as parents proved right. I hope those who are aspiring to become teachers will take this ruling into their hearts and have determination to protect children."

Takahiro Shito, 52, who lost his 11-year-old daughter, Chisato, said, "I once again felt that my daughter's life could have been saved." Frustrated with the fact that the ruling didn't recognize the school's failure to develop concrete crisis management manuals and other disaster prevention schemes, he added, "Why didn't they evacuate as quickly as possible? The real verification will start now."

The plaintiffs were also discontented with the fact that the ruling didn't hold the Ishinomaki Municipal Board of Education responsible for scrapping notes taken during interviews with surviving children, nor Ishinomaki Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama for describing the tragedy as "fate in a natural disaster" at a briefing session for bereaved families. The plaintiffs had argued that they were "hurt even after the disaster."

Yoshiaki Suzuki, 54, whose 12-year-old son Kento died in the tsunami while his 9-year-old daughter Hana remains missing, said, "I wanted the court to take the hardship of bereaved families seriously."

Families who didn't join the lawsuit were also present in the courtroom for the Oct. 26 ruling. Their reasons for not taking part in the suit were diverse, with one family member saying, "I cannot blame the teachers who also died," and another saying, "It is painful to remember those days."

Katsura Sato, 51, whose sixth-grade daughter Mizuho was among the Okawa Elementary victims, said, "At long last, the ruling recognized that schools are supposed to protect the lives of children, which is a matter of course."

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