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Hard-hit town searches, grieves in aftermath of killer tsunami

From Paula Hancocks, CNN
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The remains of a Japanese town
  • The official death toll is 1,598, though fears are it will rise much higher
  • Citing the prime minister, Kyodo says over 15,000 have been rescued
  • In Minamisanriku, up to 9,500 people are unaccounted for

Tune in to CNN tonight at 9 ET for a special edition of "AC360." Anderson Cooper, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and Soledad O'Brien report live from Japan on the quake and tsunami's catastrophic effects.

Minamisanriku, Japan (CNN) -- As some in Japan officially kicked off their first work week Monday since its epic earthquake and tsunami, others -- especially in the country's northeast -- grieved the loss of loved ones, kept fleeting hopes that missing could be found alive and tried to come to grips with a disaster that literally tore some communities apart.

The nation's Kyodo News Agency, citing Prime Minister Naoto Kan, reported more than 15,000 people have been rescued in the days since Friday's 8.9-magnitude tremor. But, while 1,598 people were officially dead Monday according to the National Police Agency Emergency Disaster Headquarters, the fear was that the final death toll could be exponentially higher.

That official figure, for instance, does not include 200 to 300 bodies in Sendai that have yet to be recovered, Kyodo reports. Nor does it include half the population of Minamisanriku -- some 9,500 people -- who may be unaccounted for.

In that northeastern Japanese town, a family photo album lay on the sodden ground, showing a beaming man holding a newborn baby -- happiness out of place amid the devastation and carnage left by a tsunami that occurred just after a massive earthquake.

Only a handful of buildings were left standing, with the rest a mangled mess of rubble. A boat sat on the edge of town, carried more than two miles inland by the tsunami.

When the tsunami warning sounded Friday, "Most people ran away," said Choushin Takahashi, who was working in a local government office near the water. "Some had to leave the elderly or disabled behind on the second floor. I think a lot of those left behind probably died."

As the wave hit, he said he felt as if it was happening in a dream.

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"I saw the bottom of the sea when the tidal wave withdrew and houses and people were being washed out," another resident said. "I couldn't watch anymore."

A dramatic rescue took place off Japan's coast Sunday, when a Japanese destroyer rescued a 60-year-old man at sea, some 15 kilometers (9 miles) off Fukushima prefecture, according to Kyodo News Agency.

The man, identified as Hiromitsu Shinkawa of Minamisoma, was swept away with his house, Kyodo said. He was spotted floating in the sea, waving a self-made red flag while standing on a piece of his house's roof.

Shinkawa was conscious and in good condition, Kyodo said, citing Defense Ministry officials. He was quoted as telling rescuers he had left his home because of the quake, but returned home to grab some belongings with his wife when the tsunami hit. "I was saved by holding onto the roof," he said, "but my wife was swept away."

When a member of Japan's Maritime Self Defense Force handed him something to drink on the rescue boat, Shinkawa drank it and burst into tears, Kyodo reported.

"No helicopters or boats that came nearby noticed me," he said. "... I thought today was the last day of my life."

In Minamisanriku, search and rescue efforts were frequently disturbed by tsunami alerts prompted by ongoing aftershocks.

When the alarm sounded, police abandoned their cars, rescue workers blew whistles and people rushed to high ground. "It's your life!" shouted one man. "Run!" It was a false alarm, but such warnings are taken seriously in the wake of the disaster.

In Sendai, south of Minamisanriku, Hiroki Otomo said his mother and uncle remain missing. They were at the family's home when the tsunami struck.

"Frightening beyond belief," Otomo said. "I have no words."

Many areas of the town are simply gone -- mud and splintered wood littering an area where a row of homes used to stand; a vehicle upside-down among tree branches. A school, which had 450 people inside when the tsunami hit, stood with its doors blown open and a jumble of furniture -- plus a truck -- in its hallways. Some teachers and students were able to escape the building, but officials said others did not.

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Sendai residents said the water reached the treetops as it swept into the town. Cars were tossed like toys, windows blasted out and homes crushed or swept away completely.

"As I was trying to evacuate, the tsunami was already in front of me," another young man said. "I tried to drive, but I ended up running instead."

Some four-wheel-drive vehicles were seen on Sendai roads. Military choppers hovered overhead. Among those yet to be rescued Sunday were those trapped in a hospital, officials said.

"I've been watching TV, but it looks much worse when I actually see it in person," said a third young man. "I grew up in the house that was not close to the ocean. I didn't think it would be this bad, but I'm from the west side and I guess some people could not imagine the horror of the tsunami and couldn't evacuate in time."

Some residents of coastal Sendai returned to their homes Sunday, salvaging what they could. Others stood in long lines for limited fuel and, especially, for food and water. The line at one food and water distribution center was several blocks long.

Melissa Heng said she has many colleagues who are unable to reach friends and family living elsewhere in Miyagi prefecture, as phone service has been spotty. That, she said, is "adding to the emotional toll."

But "for a city that's seen so much tragedy in the last few days, the people seem very calm," she said. Many families are focusing on the cleanup process, she said, and there is a sense that "we're all in this together."

CNN's Kyung Lah, Allan Chernoff, Phil Han and Melissa Gray contributed to this report.

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