Thursday, 12 September 2013

Families of disaster victims demanding answers

Thought-provoking article:

Families of some of the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster are refusing to accept the idea that the loss of loved ones was due simply to fate.

They have been fighting court battles to find convincing answers to questions about the tragedies even though they know that doing so prolongs and could even magnify their agony. They believe that the lives of their loved ones could have been saved.

Two and a half years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. I visited some bereaved families in Miyagi Prefecture, where more than 10,000 people perished in the epic disaster.

There is little debris left in areas engulfed by the tsunami. Dump trucks were coming and going, while heavy machinery was being operated noisily.

But lurking behind banners of “rebuilding” was deep sorrow that is refusing to abate.

Five children of the Hiyori kindergarten in the city of Ishinomaki died after the pickup bus carrying them was swallowed by the tsunami. Families of four of the victims have filed a lawsuit against the kindergarten. The first ruling in the case is expected shortly.

In the town of Onagawa, 12 employees and staff members at a branch of the 77 Bank, a regional lender, died or remained unaccounted for after they took refuge on the rooftop of the branch building. Families of three of them filed a suit against the bank just one year ago.

At Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, a total of 84 children, teachers and school staff members died or went missing. An investigative committee set up by the municipal government at the initiative of the education ministry is looking into the tragedy.

Discussions with bereaved families point to a common element in all these heart-wrenching tales.

As details about what the people at these disaster sites actually did on that day in March 2011 have emerged, it has become clear that the victims could have been saved if a different course of action had been chosen.

What if, for instance, the pickup bus of the kindergarten had stayed put with the children at the facility after the earthquake, instead of heading toward the sea (to take them to their parents at home)?

What if the bank employees had taken refuge on elevated ground that was just a few minutes' walk from the branch building, rather than going up to the rooftop?

What if the children at the Okawa Elementary School had fled to a hill at the back of the school, which even children could have climbed, instead of staying at the schoolyard for up to 50 minutes until the tsunami arrived?

The question haunting the bereaved families is why these alternatives were not chosen.

The answers they have received so far from the institutions boil down to one point: It was not expected that the facilities would ever be hit by a tsunami.

Meetings to explain what happened were held, but not much vital information has been offered, according to bereaved families. If the claim that it could not be helped is accepted, they think, the same mistake could be made again.

Lawsuits over these cases inevitably focus on the issue of liability for damages. There is no guarantee that the plaintiffs will get what they really want: truth, sincere apologies and soul-searching to ensure that such tragedies will never happen again.

Some of the people who led the evacuations also died.

Whatever the outcomes of the lawsuits, the court battles alone may not lead to improved safety and better preparedness for natural disasters.

Despite being well aware of all of this, the bereaved families felt compelled to take legal action. One of the plaintiffs asked, “Are we acting out of line?”

The only thing society can do for them is to keep making serious efforts to understand the depth of their sorrow and learn lessons from the calamity to prevent similar tragedies.

Thursday 12 September 2013


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