Maehara sorry for quake flight flub

by Masami Ito

The government said Friday it will provide $500,000 in emergency grant aid to the New Zealand Red Cross to support disaster-relief activities in Christchurch, where dozens of Japanese students remain missing after a devastating earthquake.

Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara also announced Friday the government will send two doctors to assist with the mental state of Japanese survivors and their families. The ministry set up a special hotline for the families Thursday.

A Japanese rescue team of about 70 members is already in Christchurch.

“Unfortunately, no survivors have been found so far . . . and I can only imagine their families’ agony,” Maehara said Friday afternoon in a news conference.

He also apologized to the victims’ families after promising to transport them to New Zealand aboard the government plane along with the rescue team, only to later withdraw the offer.

The plane was carrying too much heavy rescue equipment and it would have taken too long for the families to obtain visas and gather for the departure. Furthermore, the legal basis for transporting civilians aboard a government plane is unclear.

According to Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, the Foreign Ministry failed to approach his ministry, which operates the plane, and ask in advance whether it could transport the families.

During the news conference, Maehara expressed dissatisfaction over media reports that played up the disappointment of the families and apparent lack of communication between the ministries.

“I am sorry that the families were disappointed after we were ultimately unable to proceed with the plan,” Maehara said.

“But it is an incident that occurred in the bigger picture of dispatching the rescue team to Christchurch as quickly as possible.”

The plane, meanwhile, will remain in New Zealand for about a week while the government clarifies whether it can be used to transport disaster survivors and their kin back to Japan.

Parliamentary Vice Minister Hisashi Tokunaga, who flew out with the rescue team Wednesday, has been briefing Maehara and Prime Minister Naoto Kan on the situation in Christchurch.

According to Tokunaga, rain Friday made the ground soft and unstable, preventing the relatives from approaching the site where their victims remain trapped.

“I heard that the families were extremely disappointed not to be able to go near the collapsed building,” Maehara said. “But they ultimately understood after the New Zealand government and police explained the possibility of further collapses.”