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Tsunami-Hit Airport Opens After U.S. Helps Clear 5,000 Cars

Sendai Airport Resumes Operations
Sendai Airport in Natori, Japan resumed its operation today after being hit by the tsunami and massive earthquake last month. Photographer: Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images

Sendai Airport, engulfed by Japan’s March 11 tsunami, resumed commercial flights today after Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military helped clear uprooted trees, houses and about 5,000 vehicles thrown about by rushing water.

“Nothing compares to the scale and absolute destruction of what went on up there,” U.S. Air Force Colonel Robert Toth, 45, said by phone yesterday from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan.

Toth, whose unit specializes in restoring aviation facilities in war zones and disaster areas, was on the first U.S. military plane to land in the area after the natural disaster.

The start of commercial flights at the airport, the largest on the tsunami-hit Tohoku coast, may bolster reconstruction efforts following the magnitude-9 earthquake that left about 27,500 people dead or missing and crippled a nuclear-power plant. All Nippon Airways Co. and Japan Airlines Co. will fly to the airport three times a day each.

“I didn’t think we would be able to restart operations so soon,” Shinichiro Ito, All Nippon’s chief executive officer, said at today’s reopening ceremony. “The airport was a mountain of debris.”

Trapped Inside

When the tsunami struck, about 1,300 people, including 600 workers, were inside the facility, said Hiroyuki Inai, 44, an engineer from Kobe, Japan, who was among the people trapped when the water crashed in.

“The cars in the airport parking lot looked like toys or a movie,” he said.

Inai spent the next two days in the airport, sleeping under packing materials on a sofa to keep warm as aftershocks rattled the building. He eventually left after a civilian rescue operation arrived with a bus to ferry passengers to the railroad station.

Full restoration of the facility will take at least a year after today’s partial reopening, Sendai Airport President Katsuhiko Ito said today.

Parts of the terminal building, hangars and other facilities were still caked in mud as crews continued removing vehicles and debris.

The U.S. Air Force began helping Japan’s Self-Defense Forces with the cleanup five days after the quake struck, Toth said. Members of the U.S. Navy, Army and Marines also were involved, he said.

Help Arrives

Toth and a team of about a dozen airmen flew to a Self-Defense Force airfield about a 90-minute drive from Sendai. A convoy of Humvees then ferried them to the devastated airport.

Within hours of their arrival, Japanese and U.S. personnel had cleared a 5,000-foot (1,500-meter) strip of asphalt, Toth said. That allowed a Lockheed Martin Corp. C-130 military freighter, fitted with avionics designed for landing without ground control in war zones, to touch down the same day, bringing in fuel and further equipment.

Japanese personnel and workers used forklifts and cranes to load smashed cars and other heavy debris onto trucks. They then used street-sweepers, earth-moving vehicles and construction equipment to clean smaller pieces and mud off the tarmac, Toth said.

“The reopening at Sendai is way ahead of what anybody would have thought when we started,” he said. “Most of the praise goes out to the Japanese workers.”

‘Wonderful Feeling’

More C-130 flights followed as work on clearing the rest of the runway continued. That was completed by March 21, allowing larger Boeing Co. C-17 planes to bring in power shovels and vehicles to help clear debris, as well as food, water and fuel for distribution to evacuation centers, Toth said.

“Cleanup operations went into high gear on the 21st,” Toth said. “That’s also when we brought in bathrooms, showers, sleeping quarters and large vehicles.”

The Air Force handled more than 250 aircraft at the airport, including ones flown by the Marines, Army, Navy and Royal Australian Air Force. The aircraft delivered more than 2.31 million pounds of food, water and aid, and more than 15,000 gallons of fuel, Toth said.

Once larger planes began landing, work moved on to restoring the airport’s air-traffic control functions and replacing lights, sensors and other gear smashed by the tsunami. By March 22, the perimeter fence was being rebuilt and Self-Defense Forces were restoring communications with the tower, said Toth, who recently flew to the airfield.

“Hearing the Japanese controller back on the radio from the control tower as we were coming in to land was a wonderful feeling,” he said.

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