Bowlegged and rheumy-eyed, 76-year-old farmer Masahira Kasamatsu barreled down the sodden path. His pants were rolled above his knees and his shoeless feet were covered with inky mud deposited by the tsunami that had swept across northeastern Japan three days earlier, killing thousands upon thousands of people. "I'm looking for my daughter," he said, barely breaking his stride as we negotiated fallen electricity poles and mangled cars. "Her name is Yoko Oosato. Have you seen her?"
Kasamatsu's daughter had worked for 30 years at the airport in Sendai, the largest city in the devastated region. After an 8.9-magnitude earthquake, the worst in Japan's history, struck on March 11, the coastal airport was deluged by a 10-m-high wave of water that churned up debris and mud several kilometers inland. Hundreds of upturned cars, airplanes and trucks littered the waterlogged landscape.
For three days, Kasamatsu, whose coastal home had been flooded by the tsunami, called his daughter's cell phone to no avail. He listened to the death rolls on the radio. He did not hear her name. Finally, Kasamatsu and his wife, Emiko, climbed into their car and drove toward the airport. The roads were barely passable; petrol ran out. The couple spent the night in their unheated car before he abandoned the vehicle and began desperately wading through water and mud to get to the airport.
"I know there are so many people that are dead," he said, as we entered the terminal building, passing 6-m-high piles of cars and uprooted pines. A pair of discarded sandals sat neatly in front of the domestic terminal. "I know that my daughter may be just one more person among so many dead. But my deepest hope is that she is alive. That is my only prayer at this moment."
Across northern Japan, invocations were being uttered by family members who still had no idea whether their loved ones were alive or dead. Tens of thousands of people were still unaccounted for, and radio stations laboriously relayed information about centenarians looking for their relatives or dead children identified by their birthmarks. Cell-phone networks were down in much of the region, and vast lakes formed by the tsunami rendered roads impassable.
With food, water and gas running low, lines of people snaked through towns in stretches of several kilometers, waiting patiently for whatever sustenance could be found, even as temperatures dipped toward freezing. Adding to the distress, nuclear reactors in Fukushima prefecture were in danger of suffering meltdowns as a result of the quake and tsunami, sending radioactive material into air already bursting with tragedy. On Sunday, Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan called the triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and possible nuclear fallout the country's "worst crisis" since World War II.