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Even after rescue, survivors struggle to come to grips with disaster

From Gary Tuchman, CNN
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Japan: Seaside town now part of the sea
  • A woman rescued from a Ishinomaki building says, "I'm so scared -- I am panicked"
  • She, like many others, have not been able to locate loved ones after the tsunami
  • Rescue teams in rowboats have brought in hundreds of survivors in that city alone
  • Japan's prime minister has said at least 15,000 have been rescued, a report says

Tune in to 'AC360' tonight at 10 ET for live reports out of Japan from Anderson Cooper, Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Soledad O'Brien.

Ishinomaki, Japan (CNN) -- For three days, they had been waiting, waiting, waiting. They were high, dry and alive, but their patience, energy and water supplies were running low.

Up to 200 people knew they couldn't venture out on their own, marooned in the Ishinomaki office building after the remnants of a massive tsunami swamped the town, as it did many others in northeast Japan.

When Japanese military personnel arrived, to whisk them away in boat after boat after boat -- over scores of trips, two to six people at a time -- they finally knew that survival was at hand. Still, many of their hopes and prayers remained unanswered.

"I have no words" to describe how difficult it has been since last Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake, Mutko Chiva said. "I'm so scared. I am panicked."

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Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Monday about 15,000 people have been rescued, according to Japan's Kyodo News Agency. Yet such success stories -- like what happened Monday in Ishinomaki, a city of about 160,000 northeast of the hard-hit city of Sendai -- are becoming increasingly rare, as time, food and water runs out for those stuck in buildings, covered in rubble or otherwise clinging for life.

Japanese TV network NHK showed video of one man canvassing the streets on his bicycle, attached to which he'd written a sign with his wife's name. He carried photos of her, showing them to everyone he met in a desperate attempt to find her.

A business owner in Iwate Prefecture choked back tears Monday, as he came upon a worker who had survived the tsunami that had consumed his town. He told NHK that he'd located half of his 25 employees by Monday, but couldn't account for the rest.

Chiva, the woman in Ishinomaki, knew that most of her co-workers were safe. She had been working alongside them, inside of the office building, when the quake struck Friday afternoon. But having no cell phone service or other means of communication, she did not know what had happened to her parents.

In addition to those working inside, more people had trudged through floodwaters or otherwise sought refuge in Chiva's building -- one of the highest in the northeast Japan town though, despite its locations several miles from the shoreline, still within the tsunami's reach.

Japanese authorities knew for some time that people were trapped inside, but could not dispatch rescue crews there due to difficulty in reaching the disaster-ravaged area and the scores of other crises competing for help.

By Monday, the military began criss-crossing Ishinomaki's streets in dozens of small rowboats and inflatable rafts, the only way to get around given the omnipresent water. One soldier told CNN that the mission of searching for signs of life in his homeland was emotionally challenging, if undoubtedly important.

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En route, the troops spotted one woman waving a white towel from a second-floor window. She told them she needed water, but didn't want to leave her home. The soldiers yelled to her, "We'll come and get you later on. Please wait."

Some evacuated from the office building, like Chiva, ended up going to hospitals to check their health after three days of subsisting on dwindling amounts of food and water. Others said they had no desire to go home, right away -- with one man telling CNN he just wanted to go to a "safe place."

Many survivors in Ishinomaki and other quake- and tsunami-ravaged communities like it around Japan didn't have a choice to go home: More than 450,000 people whose homes were lost or are inaccessible are now in shelters, according to NHK.

Still, heading home was a problem for tomorrow. For now, the challenge of making sense of the tragedy and coming to grips with their grief was more than daunting enough.

After arriving at a Red Cross shelter, weakened survivors rescued from Ishinomaki were gently placed on stretchers and carried away.

NHK showed a civil defense soldier carrying a woman into a room at the shelter. After he gingerly set her down, the woman rose to her feet with some difficulty and bowed to the soldier, telling him that she was all right. She bowed again and then collected herself to briefly tell her story, paraphrased by an NHK interpreter:

"She had been waiting for help all night, outside. She had been washed away by the wave. ... The moment she opened the door of the house, the water flooded in. ... She grabbed hold of a tree and hung on, hung on for dear life with the water all around her. A ... floor mat floated by, and she grabbed it and held on to that."

As the woman spoke in Japanese, the interpreter's voice trembled in English: "Her daughter was washed away. She was washed away, and she has not found her."

CNN's Cameron Tankersley, Brian Todd and Justine Redman contributed to this report.

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