Disaster in Japan: Tragedy & Hope

updated 03/28/2011 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/28/2011 01:00AM

DAUGHTER'S DESPERATE SEARCH

Sendai, Friday Afternoon

Yui Sawaguchi, 21, was shopping in a mall near the Sendai train station when the floor jolted beneath her. "Mirrors were broken; everything fell. It turned into chaos," she recalls. Her cell phone rang; it was her mother, panicked. "You should run!" urged Yumi Sawaguchi, 52, who was at their home in Yuriage. Yui fled but didn't get far in the confusion. A short time after the tremor, she received a text from her mother telling her to meet her at a store behind Sendai Station. Yui waited three hours; her mother never arrived. Yui made her way to a friend's house, borrowed a bicycle and set out for Yuriage in hopes of finding her mother. Halfway, she had to stop: "The whole town was swept away and vanished." All she saw was a store sign, the roof of a temple and the smoldering embers of a building. "I was pedaling and pedaling," says Yui. "I was frightened and didn't want to see dead bodies, so I tried not to look at them." She and her father, Katsuya Sawaguchi, 53, refuse to give up hope. Each day he searches for his wife-so far in vain. "I still feel like my mother will come to pick me up," Yui says through tears.

A HONEYMOON CUT SHORT

Oshika, Friday Afternoon

Australian Matthew Wheelton was having tempura and a beer at a cliff-top restaurant in Oshika with his new Japanese wife, Asami, and her parents when the quake struck. "Everyone was like, 'Stay calm!' because they get a lot of earthquakes there," says Wheelton, 26. "Then suddenly people were screaming, 'Everyone, get out! Get out!' because the restaurant was coming down." Wheelton grabbed Asami's hand and raced for the exit, but the road and parking lot outside were buckling. "We got on our knees, and I said to Asami, 'This is it,' " says Wheelton. "It felt like it went on forever." After spending two nights in a car, the foursome got to his in-laws' home. "We can't stay calm," says Wheelton. "We keep dreaming about it."

NEIGHBORS REACH OUT TO HELP

Hitachi, Friday Afternoon

The first jolt loosed a chandelier from the ceiling of their kitchen and sent dishware, food and utensils flying. Then cold reality set in: no lights, no heating, little food. To survive the chilly nights in Hitachi, Masako and Matsukichi Toyama lie beneath stacks of winter coats, each clutching a bottle of water and bread in their hands, their hedge against more tremors. Matsukichi, 72, who suffers from a lung disease, is hoarding the 33 hours of air available on his portable ventilator. Though hardly the quiet retirement they envisioned, the pair see a silver lining. "Neighbors check on us every day," says Matsukichi. "One brought us fish hot from the oven." Until now, he says, he barely knew his neighbors.

AN ABORTED RESCUE MISSION

Sendai, Saturday Morning

They planned to land near central Sendai and distribute food. But as relief workers from Tokyo-based Peace Winds Japan hovered in a chopper over the coastal city, they could see only water, debris and fires. "No people," says Yuko Shibata. "It was like a ghost town." In hopes that some people might have found sanctuary in toppled trains and cars, they scouted for a place to touch down. "We even tried to land at a shopping center, but it was flooded," Shibata says. Seeing no alternative, the workers turned and began the return trip to Tokyo. "It was very quiet. Nobody felt like talking," Shibata says with a sigh. "We will have to make another plan."

FIFTY YEARS ... AND COUNTING

Soma, Monday Afternoon

At a 500-person shelter in Soma, evacuees while away time playing cards and reading. The sole folding chair is occupied by Shoshin Shiga, 77, and his attention is focused on the woman who sits knee-to-knee with him in a wheelchair: Toshiko, 77, his bride of 50 years. "We've been through a lot together," says Shoshin. After describing the stroke that paralyzed the right side of his wife's body in 2006 and the accident that cost him an arm and a leg, Shoshin speaks calmly of the future. He says they will remain in the shelter until the earth stops swaying (on cue, the earth trembles yet again) "to make it safe for my wife." After that, they will return home and celebrate their 50th anniversary. "Nothing all that fancy," he says. "Just time together."

HIS EMPLOYEES CAME FIRST

Taihaku-ku, Friday Afternoon

After the Earth stopped shaking in Nakamachi, a section of Sendai, Katsuichi Hayashi says he looked around the offices of the hair-products company where he serves as president and thought, "I have to secure the safety of my employees." By the time he got his staff out of the building, nearby Sendai Airport was already flooded, but Hayashi, 58, was determined to drive them home. "This was only possible because one of my employees knew the back roads farther inland really well," he says. After he delivered everyone to safety, Hayashi learned just how fortunate he'd been to have a human GPS. "Many people used the coast road," he says. "They were all swept away."

CALM AFTER THE STORM

Fukushima, Monday Afternoon

Inland from the carnage, food, water and gas are running short-but not patience. As Yoshiko Sato, 50, drives her cab through the streets of Fukushima, an inland city, she passes the lines outside stores. "It's hope," she says. "Yesterday there wasn't anything, but maybe today there might be something." Rumors are running amok, but not tempers. So far there has been neither rioting nor looting. "Japanese people never do that," Sato says firmly. Apparently superstition reinforces custom. "They believe that if they steal from the store," says Sato, "something bad will happen to the store owner."

HEADLIGHTS AND HOPE

Natori, Friday Afternoon

Hitomi Asano had just stepped out of her shower when the earth convulsed. "My hair was wet, and I was in my underwear," says the 52-year-old former model, "but my first instinct was to get out the house." She ran outside barefoot, then snapped to attention when her soles hit the snow. Re-entering her house in Natori, one of the hardest-hit cities, she collected some essentials-and waited. Suddenly car lights cut through the dark. "My husband came to pick me up!" she says. It had taken Koichi, 54, a physician, four hours to make the one-hour drive, but he was not about to leave her behind.

THE HUMAN TOLL CLIMBS

Sendai, Sunday

Two days after the tsunami, Lasse Peterson of ShelterBox, an international relief organization, was among the first Western aid workers to arrive in devastated Sendai. No sooner had he begun hunting for survivors than a siren warned that another tsunami was en route. "Rescue workers climbed up onto the roofs of the tallest buildings," says Peterson. False alarm. An hour later they got the all clear. Farther north along the coast, Peterson saw no survivors. "The only hope is that people were able to get to higher ground."

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