Flight engineer Tsutomu Kimura had his first look into the smoking ruins of the No. 3 reactor building when his helicopter buzzed over the Fukushima Dai-Ichi (9501) atomic plant three days after it exploded.
It was March 17, 2011, and Kimura’s job was to push the button to dump 7,500 liters (1,979 gallons) of seawater onto the yellow steel dome of the overheating nuclear containment vessel. The blown-out five-story structure bore little resemblance to pre-March 11 pictures he saw before take-off.
“What if another explosion occurs? What will happen to my family?” Kimura thought at the time, he said in an interview last month at the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Camp Kisarazu in Chiba prefecture, near Tokyo.
One year after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami left more than 19,000 people dead or missing and caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactor cores, soldiers and firemen recalled in interviews of saving lives and burying bodies. More than 100,000 members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces poured into northeast Japan in the country’s biggest military mobilization since the forces were set up in 1954.
The troops marched into a natural disaster along 400 kilometers (248 miles) of the coast caused by the biggest recorded earthquake to hit Japan. It threw up a tsunami as high as 39 meters that wiped out towns, tossed 400-ton trawlers kilometers inland and drowned thousands.
The Japanese forces were joined by more than 24,500 U.S. troops in what was named Operation Tomodachi, the Japanese word for friend. Firefighters from all 47 prefectures in Japan joined search and rescue efforts.
The SDF’s Colonel Minoru Tomii at Camp Sendai was responsible to deploy soldiers in the Tohoku region at the center of the disaster, including Fukushima.
While the army had contingency plans for natural disasters, they weren’t adequate for the scale of devastation. “We didn’t have enough troops,” the 54-year-old officer said in an interview at Camp Ogori in Fukuoka prefecture, where he is now a major general.
The physical strain and psychological pressure to find survivors were compounded by communication delays. The SDF set up its first combined army, navy and air-force task force, which then had communication glitches because their customized radios used different frequencies.
“SDF troops came from all over Japan to save people,” said Tomii’s superior officer Eiji Kimizuka. “As time passed, that changed to recovering dead bodies,” said Kimizuka, who is now the GSDF’s Chief of Staff, at a press conference on March 8.
Tomoharu Watanabe, a firefighter in Futaba county where the Fukushima atomic plant is located, said his first tasks were search and rescue. The nuclear disaster exposed him to more dangerous work.
As the Fukushima reactors began failing, Futaba Fire Chief Kazuo Abe told his men that they needed to deliver water to the plant on March 13 to cool nuclear reactors. The firefighters were to enter the atomic station a day after the first hydrogen explosion blew up a reactor building.
“Some of them thought they might die,” Abe, 57, said in an interview at the fire department’s temporary headquarters in Kawauchi. “It was tough on the men.”
Watanabe was one of 21 men who went into the Fukushima plant on March 16.
“I heard about Chernobyl, where some firefighters had to go on suicide missions,” the 36-year-old said in an interview at the fire station. “I thought I may get a dose of radiation, but I knew I wouldn’t die if I used my equipment and knowledge correctly.”
About 1,740 kilometers southwest of Fukushima at the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Major Parkin Bryson, a helicopter pilot with the U.S. Air Force’s 33rd Rescue Squadron, was working in his office on March 11 when a colleague burst in to tell him of the unfolding disaster.
Before dawn the following morning, Bryson was at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo. Over the next month, he and the HH-60G helicopter’s three crew members would fly almost daily missions up the coast.
During one stop in freezing temperatures about 14 kilometers north of the city of Ishinomaki, he found about 50 people sheltering in a community center with no heating. His helicopter and two others carried the group to a heated shelter 40 kilometers away.
“The best part is just that you’re able to get them where they need to go,” Bryson, 33, said in an interview at Kadena.
Cigarettes and Whiskey
Another search and rescue team member, Senior Airman Nicholas Robillard, said his crewmates spotted a few people in a wrecked town and landed to see if they needed anything.
“The only thing they asked for was cigarettes and whiskey and gasoline,” Robillard, 24, said in an interview. The crew was able to scrounge together a pack and a half of smokes, but “no whiskey,” he said.
The relief effort was joined by the Air Force’s Okinawa- based 353rd Special Operations Group, which is trained to deliver supplies and humanitarian aid to no-go zones, such as bombed-out airstrips.
For Lieutenant Colonel Eric Zimmerman, the challenge was to get supplies into the city of Sendai, where the airport’s runways were littered with wrecked cars and trucks.
Zimmerman wanted to fly a crew to a military airfield in Matsushima, about 30 kilometers north of Sendai. They would then travel overland to the commercial airport.
“We were like, ‘Well, if we get a couple guys on the ground, they can look at that runway and mark off a piece that’s usable and we can start flying airplanes into there,” Zimmerman said in an interview at Kadena.
His team used MC-130 aircraft that can land on 3,000 feet of runway, compared with 12,000 feet for a Boeing Co. (BA) 747.
Before that mission could be undertaken, U.S. military commanders had to convince Japanese authorities, Zimmerman said.
“They considered Sendai to be a complete loss, and they weren’t going to have airplanes landing there for six months to a year,” Zimmerman said. “We were anxious to demonstrate what we could do. We were anxious to help.”
Five days after the quake, Zimmerman got the go-ahead for the mission. Concerns on the U.S. side about radiation fallout may have contributed to the delay, he said.
Son of Sendai
A team of 19 special operations airmen landed in Matsushima on March 16 at 5:50 a.m. About half of the team carried on to Sendai airport in a Humvee and a van. Japanese construction workers helped them clear the airstrips.
By 2:30 p.m. the same day, Major Brian Helton landed the first plane at Sendai airport since the quake.
“It looked like a parking lot of destroyed cars,” said Helton, who also flew the first Air Force MC-130 into Port-au- Prince’s airport after Haiti’s magnitude 7 quake in January 2010. For that landing, Helton got the nickname “Hero of Haiti,” said Major Jeremy Bergin, who commanded some of the flights to northeast Japan.
Now Helton has another nickname: “Son of Sendai.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Langan at email@example.com