FUKUSHIMA/MORIOKA, IWATE PREF. – When the quake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, struck northeast Japan, the lives of 367 first responders — police, firefighters and district welfare workers — were lost in the three worst-affected prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima.
Among them was Takafumi Momma, 35, a leader at his volunteer fire brigade. Momma was home in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, when the 9.0-magnitude temblor occurred off Tohoku’s coast. Unaware of the giant tsunami it had spawned, he quickly headed off to assist local residents and never returned.
Most of the first responders killed that March afternoon were engulfed by tsunami while providing evacuation guidance to residents and shutting floodgates, among other duties.
“I hope (society) will make good use of the lessons this time to minimize the death toll as much as possible in the future,” said Momma’s 34-year-old widow, Maya.
She recalled that soon after her husband left home, she rushed to pick up their two daughters, one at school and the other at a kindergarten. On the way there, she remembered his parting advice: “Listen to the radio for information.”
She switched on the car radio and heard a newscaster screaming that the tsunami had already smashed into the shoreline. She immediately turned the vehicle around and headed for an evacuation shelter on higher ground. Their home, which stood close to the shore, vanished in the massive waves.
People in the neighborhood recall seeing Momma, a regular citizen, aboard his fire engine, repeatedly urging residents to evacuate immediately. But one of its tires went flat and he was swept away by the tsunami while trying to repair it.
His wife, still unable to comprehend the scale of the destruction, toured local morgues, searching for his body. But after news of the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant began to circulate, she had to flee the city with her children to avoid the radioactive fallout, still unaware of her husband’s fate and whereabouts.
Over two years have passed and Momma’s body has yet to be recovered.
“It would be hard to think that he is still alive,” his wife said. “But even now, the thought remains that maybe he will be back some time.”
When the tsunami tore into the shore, Momma and his crew were working in an area without elevated ground to flee to. “I hope those in volunteer fire corps will operate from sites where they themselves can evacuate in an emergency and protect themselves,” his wife said.
She also advocates that fire engines be dispatched in teams of two or more so their crews will not be hindered by flat tires or mechanical failures. “Volunteer fire corps will remain necessary. But I hope (the public) will prepare themselves in everyday life, instead of just leaving the responsibility of disaster prevention and management to firefighters,” she said.
Mikio Yamazaki, a 64-year-old district welfare commissioner in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, is one of those who managed to escape the tsunami while on duty that day.
But he barely made it. After the ground started to violently rock, Yamazaki dashed out into his neighborhood, yelling at residents to evacuate and guiding them toward evacuation shelters.
Soon, he saw two cars bobbing up and down, only 100 meters down the road. He then noticed black water and realized that tsunami had struck. Yamazaki immediately jumped into a minivan he had parked outside his store and sped through the rising flood, making it to safe ground just in time.
“It was a close call,” Yamazaki recalled. “I knew I should evacuate quickly (after the quake), but I couldn’t as I was too busy guiding others.”
Four of Kamaishi’s 147 district welfare commissioners died in the disaster, among them a woman who initially fled to safe ground but was drowned by tsunami when she returned to help disabled neighbors evacuate.
In Iwate, training sessions now emphasize the need for the welfare commissioners to first ensure their own safety before helping residents in such times of emergency.
They are also reminded that they have an important role to play in the aftermath of a disaster, for instance by overseeing evacuation shelters.
“I believe welfare commissioners play a crucial and central role among residents in their districts at such times,” said Yamazaki. “There are roles that cannot be fulfilled unless we ourselves survive.”
Some measures had already been in place before 3/11. For example, one of the volunteer fire brigades in Iwate implemented a 15-minute rule for shutting floodgates, after which they are to abandon the task and evacuate, according to Ichizo Goto, an expert in fire corps and a lecturer at Tohoku Fukushi University.
Other steps have been introduced since the twin disasters. In one such instance, prefectural police in Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi are working on a manual that instructs officers to also evacuate while guiding residents to safety if they see a tsunami sweeping in.
In its 2012 white paper, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency also included the basic principle of evacuating. The agency, under the internal affairs ministry, also called for better equipping fire brigade volunteers with transceivers and other necessary equipment.
Still, much more can be done that would perhaps have saved Momma and his fellow emergency response officers, who put themselves in harm’s way to protect others out of a sense of responsibility.
“Local residents must come to realize the limits of what fire brigades can do, and society should work to create an environment in which it is not taboo (for firefighters and others) to evacuate in the face of danger,” remarked Goto, the university lecturer.