SENDAI – A court ordered the city of Ishinomaki and Miyagi Prefecture on Wednesday to pay roughly ¥1.4 billion ($13.4 million) in damages to the families of 23 elementary school students killed in the tsunami that followed a major earthquake in northeastern Japan in 2011, judging the city-run school failed to evacuate the children appropriately.
In a suit filed with the Sendai District Court, plaintiffs demanded that the city and prefectural governments jointly pay ¥100 million in compensation for each child killed, arguing Okawa Elementary School should have foreseen the possibility of a tsunami and evacuated the children to a nearby mountain or other high ground instead of an area near a river.
“The school could have expected the arrival of a massive tsunami when they heard the city vehicles urging evacuation,” said presiding Judge Kenji Takamiya in awarding the compensation to all the plaintiffs.
“It should have evacuated the children to a mountain behind the school,” he said, judging that the school failed in its responsibility to avoid disastrous consequences.
The city and its third-party panel have revealed that after the magnitude-9 earthquake occurred at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, students at the school were kept in its playground, located about 4 kilometers off the Pacific coast, for some 45 minutes before leaving for higher ground near a river.
A tsunami estimated to measure over 10 meters hit the coast of Ishinomaki around 3:30 p.m. and flooded the area, engulfing a group of 76 children and 11 teachers who were evacuating. Of the group, only four students and a teacher survived.
The panel set up by the city to look into the case concluded in its final report released in 2014 that the school’s slow decision-making and its decision to evacuate near a river bank were the direct causes of the casualties.
In all, the school lost 74 of its 108 students and 10 of the 13 teachers and officials, making it one of the worst-hit facilities in the quake-tsunami disaster five years ago.
The bereaved families of some of the victims filed the latest damages suit in March 2014, claiming the school’s failure in properly gathering and analyzing information led to the tragedy.
The school’s teachers and officials were aware of the tsunami alert through radio and local wireless network and must have heard the city vehicles urging evacuation, they said.
The defendants argued the school was located outside the area designated as being at risk from tsunami and said they could not have predicted such a massive tsunami.
While the school had a disaster response guideline mentioning tsunami, the defendants said it was not based on a specific assumption.
During the trial, judges visited the sites involved in the case and the school principal at the time, who was then outside the school, was examined as a witness.
More than a dozen other damages suits have been filed by tsunami victims’ families against operators of other facilities in the disaster-hit areas, including a kindergarten and a driving school.
In the case of the kindergarten in Ishinomaki, the Sendai District Court ordered its operator to pay ¥177 million in compensation over the deaths of four children in its pickup bus that was swamped by high waves, deeming it could have easily predicted the tsunami would arrive in the area.
The case was taken to an upper court and settled there.