Friend's death etched in memory of young Fukushima No. 1 worker

by Yukiko Maeda


This is the last in a six-part series on the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe based on accounts of people who struggled to contain the crisis in its early stages.

Little is known about the death of a young worker at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power complex on March 11, 2011, but Satoru Hayashizaki will never forget that fateful day when he lost his comrade and good friend.

The body of Kazuhiko Kokubo, 24, was one of two found in the basement of the No. 4 reactor building after it had been swamped by huge tsunami that reached the plant about 50 minutes after the Great East Japan Earthquake struck.

Kokubo, a vocational high school graduate, was hired by Tokyo Electric Power Co. two years after Hayashizaki, but the two men of the same age soon became friends. They would go out for drinks after work and visit each other’s homes to play video games. They were both in junior positions on the operation team handling reactors 3 and 4, and sat next to each other in their workstation near the reactors’ main control room.On the day of the disasters, Hayashizaki and Kokubo were both in the workstation. They were among six auxiliary equipment operators who were ordered to inspect the No. 4 reactor building after the shaking triggered by the magnitude-9.0 quake subsided.

The six were grouped in pairs for their respective missions. Hayashizaki was with a junior colleague to check the second floor, two others were assigned to the first floor, and Kokubo and his partner went to the first basement floor.

When Hayashizaki was checking equipment on the second floor, his partner, who was peering down into the first floor through an open space, called to him: “Mr. Hayashizaki, look!”

Hayashizaki peered in the direction his colleague was pointing and saw water slowly leaking into the building. It was coming from beneath the shutters on the big steel doors for the large equipment service entrance.

He then heard a deep rumbling that grew louder by the second. He wondered if it might be an aftershock, but there was no time to ponder the matter as he heard something that sounded like an explosion.

The shutters were ripped back like paper and a mass of black churning water rushed into the building. It gushed into the stairwell at a frightening speed and into the basement.

He finally realized it was a tsunami.

Hayashizaki called Kokubo via the Personal Handy-phone System phones that Tepco employees use to communicate with others in the Fukushima No. 1 complex.

“Kokubo, pick up the phone. Pick it up. Pick it up. Pick it up.” He was desperate to know if his friend was safe. He called repeatedly but could not hear the sound of the other phone ringing.

The team on the first floor was unharmed, as were Hayashizaki and his partner. But there was no sight of the familiar face of his friend and the other colleague, Yoshiki Terashima, 21.

As the water began to recede, Hayashizaki could finally start searching for them. But to his dismay the stairwell leading to the basement was filled with water and he couldn’t get down there.

“Kokubo! Kokubo!” Hayashizaki continued calling for his friend, for what must have been nearly an hour. There was no response. The room was wrapped in silence and Hayashizaki’s voice was the only thing that echoed through the first floor.

For Hayashizaki, that moment will forever be etched in his memory.

After Tepco confirmed that the water filling the basement was not contaminated by radiation, the head office in Tokyo decided to dispatch divers to look for the two missing men.

The search, however, was brought to a halt by the March 14 explosion that ripped through the nearby No. 3 reactor.

The bodies of Kokubo and Terashima were eventually found in the basement of the No. 4 building on March 30. The cause of death for both was listed as hemorrhagic shock.

Hayashizaki wasn’t allowed to join the search for Kokubo, even though he had volunteered for it, because his superior thought the emotional stress might be too great. He never saw his friend’s body and this made Kokubo’s death even more hard to believe.

It was exactly one year later that Hayashizaki visited his friend’s grave at a temple in the suburbs of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.

After undertaking a painstaking process to contain the world’s worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the government announced in December 2011 that the reactors at Fukushima No. 1 had achieved a stable state of cold shutdown.

Nonetheless, the crippled plant continues to face a host of challenges, with the government and Tepco expecting it to take four long decades to scrap the four reactors that suffered meltdowns or explosions in their buildings.

Hayashizaki believes his life post-March 11 has taken on a special meaning. In front of Kokubo’s gravestone on March 11, 2012, he made a vow.

“I will treasure my life and live not only for myself but also for you,” he declared.

Job titles and ages are as of March 2011.

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