SENDAI – The families of 23 elementary school students killed by the March 2011 tsunami testified in the Sendai District Court on Monday, alleging that school officials and local authorities in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, should have taken them to higher ground in the 45 minutes or so before seawater engulfed the building.
“The delay in judgment caused irreparable (damage). It was simply a man-made disaster,” Yoshiaki Suzuki told the court. Suzuki’s son and daughter, Kento, 12, and Hana, 9, attended Okawa Elementary School. Kento was found dead eight days later on a riverbank about 1 km away; Hana was never found.
Of the 108 pupils enrolled at the school, 74 died or remain missing. Of the 13 staff, 10 perished.
Suzuki’s wife, Miho, said: “We have not moved forward even one step since the disaster. Please give us the happiness we had before. Please bring back our daughter.”
The city-run school stands on low-lying land about 4 km from the coast. The families allege school staff wrongfully decided to keep the children in the schoolyard when they could have led them up a hill behind the school.
They said the risks were foreseeable based on publicly available information, and not least because tsunami sirens were going off at the time.
“My heart aches with pity when I think of how the children just followed what their teachers told them,” Suzuki, 52, said.
The families are demanding ¥100 million for each child killed, jointly from Ishinomaki and the Miyagi Prefectural Government, or ¥2.3 billion in total, on the grounds that officials failed in their duty to ensure the children’s safety. They filed the suit in March.
City officials have defended the school’s actions. They say the tsunami could not have been predicted because the school was not in a designated hazard zone. At least one map showed it was unlikely to flood in the event of tsunami.
Furthermore, they say teachers were right to send the children into the yard to calm them after perhaps the strongest quake they had ever experienced. They also said there was no path for the children to use to get up the nearby hill.
The Miyagi Prefectural Government has called for the suit to be thrown out.
A third-party panel that looked into the case by interviewing survivors has reported that the decisions made that day will never be known in detail because so many of the staff are dead.
Meanwhile, two similar suits elsewhere saw courts hand down opposite rulings.
In one, the court ordered a kindergarten operator to pay damages for failing to evacuate children properly on the grounds that staff could have predicted the tsunami.
But in the second case, a court rejected a case filed against a bank whose staff fled to the building’s roof and were swept off it, saying it could not have foreseen that the waves would go that high.