Japan begins to dig for dead amid nuclear crisis

Estimated 10,000 people killed

TAKAJO, Japan — Rescue workers used chain saws and hand picks Monday to dig out bodies in Japan’s devastated coastal towns, as Asia’s richest nation faced a mounting humanitarian, nuclear and economic crisis in the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami that likely killed thousands.

Millions of people spent a third night without water, food or heating in near-freezing temperatures along the devastated northeastern coast; the containment building of a second nuclear reactor exploded because of hydrogen buildup while the stock market plunged over the likelihood of huge losses by Japanese industries including big names such as Toyota and Honda.

More than 10,000 people are estimated to have died in Friday’s double-headed tragedy, which caused unimaginable deprivation for people of this industrialized country that has not seen such hardships since World War II. In many areas there is no running water, no power and four- to five-hour waits for gasoline. People are suppressing hunger with instant noodles or rice balls while dealing with the loss of loved ones and homes.

“People are surviving on little food and water. Things are simply not coming,” said Hajime Sato, a government official in Iwate prefecture, one of the three hardest hit.

“We have repeatedly asked the government to help us, but the government is overwhelmed by the scale of damage and enormous demand for food and water,” he told The Associated Press.

“We are only getting around just 10 percent of what we have requested. But we are patient because everyone in the quake-hit areas is suffering.”

He said local authorities were also running out of body bags and coffins.

“We have requested funeral homes across the nation to send us many body bags and coffins. But we simply don’t have enough. We just did not expect such a thing to happen. It’s just overwhelming.”

Sato said local authorities may ask foreign funeral homes to send supplies.

The pulverized coast has been hit by more than 150 aftershocks since Friday, the latest one a 6.2 magnitude quake that was followed by a new tsunami scare Monday. Abandoning their search operations, soldiers told residents of the devastated shoreline in Soma, the worst hit town in Fukushima prefecture, to run to higher ground.

Sirens wailed and soldiers shouted “find high ground! Get out of here!” Several uniformed soldiers were seen leading an old woman up a muddy hillside. The warning turned out to be a false alarm.

“This is Japan’s most severe crisis since the war ended 65 years ago,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan told reporters Sunday, adding that Japan’s future would be decided by its response.

Search parties arrived in Soma for the first time since Friday to dig out bodies. Ambulances stood by and body bags were laid out in an area cleared of debris, as firefighters used hand picks and chain saws to clear an indescribable jumble of broken timber, plastic sheets, roofs, sludge, twisted cars, tangled powerlines and household goods.

Helicopters buzzed overhead, surveying the destruction that spanned the horizon. Ships were flipped over near roads, a half mile (a kilometer) inland. Officials said one-third of the city of 38,000 people was flooded and thousands were missing.

According to officials, more than 1,800 people have been confirmed dead — including 200 people whose bodies were found Sunday along the coast — and more than 1,400 were missing in Friday’s disasters. Another 1,900 were injured.

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