SENDAI (Kyodo) Corpses recovered from disaster areas three weeks after the March 11 megaquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region have become increasingly difficult to identify because of extensive damage, according to a coroner involved in the identification process.
In a letter depicting what he witnessed, the forensic scientist, who is helping police coroners and declined to be named, said identification work is lagging because more than 100 bodies are turning up daily in hardest-hit Miyagi Prefecture alone.
The damage was “as heavy as to arouse feelings of paralysis even in one such as myself, a forensic doctor familiar with dead bodies,” he wrote, referring to some 100 bodies laid out at a school gymnasium where he worked one day.
“I tried hard to control myself by thinking ‘I should show composure as a scientist,’ while hearing desperately repressed voices (of the next of kin), voices cursing their fates and voices of anger that had nowhere to turn,” the doctor said.
“But I couldn’t fight back my tears when I saw the body of a little girl looking very similar to my daughter,” he added.
As of 10 a.m. Monday, the death toll from the disaster stood at 12,157 in 12 prefectures and 15,496 people had been reported missing by relatives to police in six prefectures, according to data compiled by the National Police Agency.
Forensic doctors are in charge of collecting medical biographies from the bodies, locating traces of past surgery, estimating ages and collecting blood samples with long needles for DNA analysis.
At the gym of an elementary school, he and other coroners examined bodies on makeshift tables assembled by lining up students’ desks in a space screened by blue plastic sheets, he said.
Identified bodies were then put in coffins and moved onto a stage in the gym to wait for visits by any surviving relatives. “The sound of bereaved families crying and sobbing was always heard from the stage,” he said.
While the bodies so far found in the cold northeast were relatively clean after mud and dried grass were wiped away by police with water, quite a few were overdressed or had bulky luggage, he said.
The little girl had a bag full of retort pouch foods that may have been too heavy for her to run with, while an elderly person wearing a layer of five sweaters and people with backpacks containing passbooks, personal seals and other valuables were found under collapsed houses.
“They may have been accustomed to quakes or tsunami, but that seems to have worked negatively. I couldn’t help but think what if they had fled without any belongings,” he said.
The postmortem certificates he writes have become almost identical, citing “suspected drowning” as the cause of death, “quake-triggered tsunami” as the reason behind the deaths and “around 3 p.m.” as the time they died. The quake struck at 2:46 p.m.
79 corpses found
The Defense Ministry on Monday revised the number of bodies recovered by Japanese and U.S. forces the previous day to 12 from 11 due to an error in its tally, bringing to 79 the total found during a three-day search by rescue workers in tsunami-hit northeastern Japan.
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