National | FOCUS

Grief weighs heavily on students, teachers in wake of Tochigi avalanche

Kyodo

The anguish of mountain club survivors who lost their classmates in Monday’s avalanche tragedy in Tochigi Prefecture has just begun to sink in.

With time still remaining before schools reopen in April following spring break, the board of education and faculty now faces the prospect of having to console students, who in some cases witnessed their friends die before their very eyes.

And in what might be considered too little, too late, following the deaths of seven students and one teacher near a Nasu ski resort, the prefecture’s school board may ban “winter climbing” among high school students and require mandatory advance safety checks on training trips, which have not been subject to inspections previously.

“I was so scared, I have no recollection,” a 16-year-old first-year student who was caught in the avalanche said as he searched for words to describe the accident.

A funeral was held Thursday for Yusuke Kaburagi, 17, with friends from his school sending him off. Some were sobbing as they put their hands together in prayer.

“He was a friendly kid. I think it was an accident that could have been avoided,” said a 51-year-old man who is a close friend of Kaburagi’s father. “They could have just canceled the training. I feel more anger than sorrow.”

Chief among concerns for officials is that the accident will have a long-term impact on survivors, leaving deep psychological scars. Among student and teachers there is a general sense of unease, since school is still out on spring holiday and they have no set daily routines to follow.

“I cannot accept this reality,” said a classmate of one of the students who died. According to his family, the student spends all day sleeping at home.

The prefectural school board will dispatch school counselors to each of the high schools that took part in the climbing event. As of Tuesday, four schools, including Otawara High School where all of the victims attended, had sought counseling.

Otawara High School distributed handouts to students at a school-wide assembly on Wednesday. “Let us share our pain and sadness. Shedding tears is also necessary. If anything comes up, please speak with your teachers or parents,” it read.

Despite the school’s efforts, many of the grieving students remain inconsolable. The school’s principal read the names of the eight victims in the morning gathering and observed a moment of silence to remember them.

“We have lost students with a future,” the principal said while crying after explaining the account of the accident.

A male student who had been friends since junior high school with Yuzuru Asai, a 17-year-old victim, said, “I imagined I might be able to see him again when I arrived at school today, but of course he wasn’t there. This is so painful.”

A classmate of Atsuki Takase, 16, another one of the victims, said in a trembling voice, “I thought that he would be saved. Please rest well in heaven.”

Masaki Oku, 16, was also among the seven male students who died.

“When I think of him I can’t sleep,” said a weary-looking classmate. “Why were they doing traversing training in the snow? There was no explanation for this from the school. Perhaps they still don’t know, but I want an explanation.”

Another concern is the mental stress on teachers who were responsible for leading the excursion and who are now asked to answer for how the tragedy transpired.

Some of the faculty who led the training event and witnessed the accident returned to school visibly drained.

“It is expected that (excursion leaders) will become most distraught when explaining the accident. It is necessary that we pay close attention to both students and these faculty members,” said a board of education official from the prefecture.