Tide of bodies overwhelms quake-hit Japan

Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Japan Ground Self-Defense Force members search Monday for the victims of Friday's tsunami in Miyako, Japan, three days after a massive earthquake and the ensuing tsunami hit the country's east coast. (Kyodo News ~ Associated Press)

TAGAJO, Japan -- A tide of bodies washed up along Japan's coastline Monday, overwhelming crematoriums, exhausting supplies of body bags and adding to the spiraling humanitarian, economic and nuclear crisis after the massive earthquake and tsunami.

Millions of people faced a fourth night without water, food or heating in near-freezing temperatures along the northeast coast devastated by Friday's disasters. Meanwhile, a third reactor at a nuclear power plant lost its cooling capacity and its fuel rods were fully exposed, raising fears of a meltdown.

The stock market plunged over the likelihood of huge losses by Japanese industries including big names such as Toyota and Honda.

On the coastline of Miyagi prefecture, which took the full force of the tsunami, a Japanese police official said 1,000 bodies were found scattered across the coastline. Kyodo, the Japanese news agency, reported that 2,000 bodies washed up on two shorelines in Miyagi.

In one town in a neighboring prefecture, the crematorium was unable to handle the large number of bodies being brought in for funerals.

"We have already begun cremations, but we can only handle 18 bodies a day. We are overwhelmed and are asking other cities to help us deal with bodies. We only have one crematorium in town," said Katsuhiko Abe, an official in Soma.

While the official death toll rose to nearly 1,900, the discovery of the washed-up bodies and other reports of deaths suggest the true number is much higher. In Miyagi, the police chief has said 10,000 people are estimated to have died in his province alone.

The outspoken governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, told reporters Monday that the disaster was "punishment from heaven" because Japanese have become greedy.

Across Japan, most people opt to cremate their dead. With so many bodies, the government on Monday waived a rule requiring permission first from local authorities before cremation or burial to speed up funerals, said Health Ministry official Yukio Okuda.

"The current situation is so extraordinary, and it is very likely that crematoriums are running beyond capacity," Okuda said.

"This is an emergency measure. We want to help quake-hit people as much as we can."

Friday's double tragedy has caused unimaginable deprivation for people of this industrialized country -- Asia's richest -- which hasn't seen such hardship 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 hardest hit.

Sato said deliveries of food and other supplies were just 10 percent of what is needed. Body bags and coffins were running so short that the government may turn to foreign funeral homes for help, he said.

"We have requested funeral homes across the nation to send us many body bags and coffins. But we simply don't have enough," he said.

"We just did not expect such a thing to happen. It's just overwhelming."

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