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Families seek answers after men called to work on night of typhoon found dead in Fukushima

Tani Hospital is seen in the background as the area is submerged with water, in Motomiya, Fukushima Prefecture, on Oct. 13, 2019. (Mainichi/Rikka Teramachi)

FUKUSHIMA -- Families are seeking answers after two maintenance workers who were called into a hospital the night Typhoon Hagibis made landfall in eastern Japan succumbed to the disaster.

The bodies of the two maintenance workers, Masaaki Yamaguchi, 72, from the Fukushima Prefecture town of Miharu, and Hiroyuki Watanabe, 70, from the prefectural city of Motomiya, were found near the entrance to Tani Hospital in Motomiya.

"I want to know why my loved one died," said one of the family members.

It has so far been confirmed that 79 people in 12 prefectures died due to the typhoon. Fukushima Prefecture in northeastern Japan claimed the most deaths, at 29.

The bodies of Yamaguchi and Watanabe were discovered at about 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 13. They had worked for the hospital and its nursing care facility for over 30 years, operating and inspecting boilers, among other tasks.

The day before, Yamaguchi had arrived home at around 6:30 p.m. but left for work about five hours later after receiving a request from the hospital to help out, as the facility was inundated with water. Doctors, pharmacists and clerical staff assembled at the hospital, carrying medical charts and drugs upstairs from the first floor and turning on power generators.

Yamaguchi eventually arrived home at around 4 a.m. on Oct. 13, thoroughly drenched. However, he was contacted again by the hospital at around 6 a.m. and headed to the institution, telling his family, "It's an emergency situation."

A hospital staffer spotted Yamaguchi and Watanabe alive at around 9 a.m., when the area was swamped with water. There is also a witness account stating that they were on a canoe outside the hospital, but their actions thereafter remain unknown.

As the water level surged, access to the hospital was temporarily severed. After the water receded, Yamaguchi's son, Masahiro, 45, searched for his father and Watanabe from around 10 p.m. that day along with hospital staff.

They later found the bodies of the two men. Yamaguchi's wristwatch had stopped with its hands pointing to 11:30 a.m. Police said Yamaguchi was presumed to have died at noon on Oct. 13.

Yamaguchi liked to please others around him. He remodeled an idle greenhouse into a karaoke box and let locals use it for free. He also carried out the work he was assigned with a sense of responsibility, never cutting corners. After his death, local residents visited his home daily to offer incense sticks for him, crying loudly with their heads down on the floor.

"I've learned how much people loved my father. I'm proud of him," Masahiro said. "I understand the situation was chaotic, but I want to know what happened to him. If there are people who know something about him, please let me know, no matter how small the bits of information," he said.

Watanabe, meanwhile, often joined local community events held near the hospital, and his face was familiar to residents of the area.

"He was a man skilled in his work. I believe hospital staff placed a lot of faith in him. He may have thought that it was a mission of his to protect the hospital," said Junko Takahashi, 69, an acquaintance of Watanabe for 40 years who affectionately called him "Nabe-chan."

It remains unclear what Yamaguchi and Watanabe were working on outside the hospital before they died in the disaster. Yoshihisa Tani, director of the hospital, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Both men were veterans who had experienced the flood disaster of 1986 (which caused severe damage in the Kanto and Tohoku regions). I don't think they would have ventured to do anything dangerous, but I don't know how and why they went outside." Another doctor at the hospital said, "I believe they tried to protect our patients and hospital until their last breaths."

All of the approximately 160 inpatients of the hospital and residents of an attached nursing home for the elderly have been confirmed to be safe.

(Japanese original by Mina Isogai, Fukushima Bureau, and Buntaro Saito, City News Department)

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