- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

OFUNATO, Japan (AP) | For several hours, Ashley Russell thought his daughter was dead. A missing persons website set up to track Japan’s tsunami said so.

The Australian father eventually discovered that the post was a hoax and his daughter, Alice Byron, is safe.

Sydney-based Mr. Russell told of his distress Tuesday after finding a message on the Google site Saturday afternoon saying the 21-year-old woman had been confirmed dead at a hospital in the devastated coastal town of Ofunato, where she had been teaching English for nine months.

It cited the name and telephone number of a real hospital, but gave a fake doctor’s name. Her father said frantic friends in Japan were able to telephone the hospital and confirm the deception.

“There are some evil people out there,” said Mr. Russell, a 48-year-old publisher. “Her employer told me other people had suffered the same hoax as well.”

With thousands still missing from the devastating tsunami that followed Japan’s worst-ever earthquake on Friday, the potential for such hoaxes is great.

“These people are looking for a reaction,” said Ms. Byron, who was tracked down by the Associated Press at Ofunato City Hall in stricken northeast Iwate province on Tuesday.

“There are people on the Internet who want to make light of a bad situation and make edgy jokes. … It doesn’t take long for the Internet hate machine to roll into action.”

Ms. Byron said she was at her Ofunato home when the quake hit. She climbed the hill behind her apartment and watched the unstoppable water carry cars and massive amounts of debris inland.

“One of the hardest things to deal with psychologically was not contacting my family to tell them I was safe,” she said.

She eventually was able to send a brief e-mail saying “safe. evacuated to town hall center. love you.” using a satellite phone.

But she added: “People have lost far more than I have, and I think the fact that a person had a hoax played on them, in the scheme of this disaster, is one of the most minor, insignificant things imaginable, even if it did cause my parents great hurt.

“The hurt that other people are feeling in this city is larger by an unimaginable degree.”