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Magnitude of disaster to test Japan's mettle anew

By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
  • Series of rolling disasters put island nation of 126 million to one of its toughest tests
  • Bodies wash up on shores; hospitals patients float away; others find ways to survive
  • Nuclear experts staying at plant marks one of history's most poignant acts of courage
  • Experts: Japan puts collective before individual, which will be key to the nation's recovery

(CNN) -- It's among the best-prepared countries when it comes to disaster, and for good reason. Japan has played host to some of history's worst calamities: the 100-foot tsunami that killed 27,000 people in 1896, the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima during World War II.

Who knew the 9.0-magnitude quake, the most violent on record to shake the island nation, could combine these catastrophes into one, leaving 126 million people struggling to anticipate the next temblor, rush of seawater or burst of radiation into the atmosphere?

Many were thinking about their weekend, watching the clock at work when the ground began to shake at 2:46 p.m. It wasn't a quick fit like many past quakes. This one lasted about five minutes -- an eternity to those on the ground.

As the tsunami warnings rang out, the nation seemed cool, unfazed even. And why not? Tsunami warnings were old hat. There had been one just two days earlier, and the massive quake that rocked Chile about a year ago had set off the same threats.

This quake was different, though, and would test the nation's mettle in new ways. Not only was it Japan's worst recorded quake, but six aftershocks -- all at least 6.3 magnitude and one 7.1 -- rocked the coast over the next hour as a 30-foot wall of ocean rushed to the coast at 500 mph.

The first images were terrifying, like something from a science-fiction film. An indiscriminate and all-consuming blob of seawater moved at a frightening clip across rice plots toward homes and businesses in Sendai.

Cars and boats, including a massive cargo ship, were picked up as if they were children's toys. Cars bobbed in the water like apples. Boats were crushed under bridges. Homes were reduced to rubble. A few were on fire as the blob carried them into highways and other structures.

Watch the water overtake northern Japan Video

A man who identified himself only as Iyibashi was fortunate enough to survive in one of the bobbing cars.

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He hurt his hand trying to smash a window to free himself. Certain he would drown, he forced a car door open. The water pinned back the door on his hips and legs, injuring them. The next thing he remembers is the ambulance pulling in to Shiogama's Saka General Hospital.

Distraught as he recounted his brush with death, Iyibashi smiled frailly as he told CNN, "I am still alive."

Watch Iyibashi tell his story Video

Others in Miyagi prefecture weren't so fortunate. Days after the tsunami passed, as hundreds of aftershocks continued rocking the north end of the island, bodies -- by some counts, 2,000 of them -- became commonplace on Miyagi's shore. One tide alone reportedly delivered 1,000.

In a neighborhood in Shichigahama, everything was washed away. The only home still standing, one resident explained, was from another neighborhood. The tsunami dropped it off, along with a field of debris that in some places stood 10 feet deep.

From a school on a hill where she and other survivors took shelter, Sueko Goto recalled watching patients float away from the hospital in Minamisanriku as powerful waves inundated four of the hospital's five floors.

"People were in bed, covered in blankets," she said. "And then they were gone."

Watch Goto describe the waves carrying off patients Video

About two-thirds of the hospital's 100 patients were lost, according to a staff member. More than half of the city's 17,000 residents are missing. It was one of the hardest-hit locales, if such superlatives are fair in a nation now so familiar with the tsunami's destruction.

Cameraphone footage from a rooftop in Miyagi prefecture showed sea spray exploding into the air as if it were crashing into a patch of rocky coast -- except this was a few miles inland, and it was crashing into two- and three-story buildings, breaking them down and sweeping them up in the blob of debris.

Keisuke Masuda, a student at a civil aviation school in Sendai, fled to a rooftop upon hearing the tsunami warning. He filmed the blob approaching the hangars, crushing everything in its way.

"It's over. It's over," he thought to himself.

It wasn't. He and his fellow students remained trapped on the rooftop for days. One night, the temperature dropped to about 30 degrees.

"No food, no water, so we were so scared," he said during an interview after the water passed.

Watch how Sendai Airport became an island

As tsunami waters crept farther inland, rooftops became prime places to retreat as higher ground meant a shot at survival. They also were the best places to capture images of the blob as it carved its path of devastation.

Call it a demonstration of the tsunami's cruelty: Those lucky enough to find refuge were relegated to torturously watching the water make off like a bandit with their homes, their workplaces, their schools, their neighborhoods, their loved ones -- everything they held dear.

And yet another disaster was unfolding.

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Returning to the devastation

Almost six hours after the quake, Japan -- which has 54 nuclear power plants -- declared an emergency at its facilities in Sendai. The good news was four plants had shut down automatically; the bad news was that nuclear fuel doesn't cool just because someone needs it to. It takes years.

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At first, there was no radiation detected at any of the plants, according to authorities, but there were fires, then explosions. Backup diesel generators used to power cooling systems failed. There were fears of partial meltdowns and exposed fuel rods.

At the Fukushima Daini plant, residents within 6 miles were evacuated, but the situation at Fukushima Daiichi seemed to worsen by the hour: first residents within 2 miles of the plant were told to leave, then 6 miles, then 12.

Authorities also began distributing potassium iodide, which helps block the thyroid gland's absorption of radioactive iodine.

Indicative of their desperation and helplessness, Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials announced Saturday evening they would flood Fukushima Daiichi's Unit 1 reactor, where pressure was rapidly rising, with seawater and boron.

The saltwater would corrode the reactor, rendering the multibillion-dollar mechanism unusable, but after cesium-137 and iodine-131 had been detected near the plant, officials didn't care. They couldn't care.

A week after the quake, officials are still struggling. There has been speculation that there was at least a partial meltdown of one of the reactors, and broadcaster NHK reported late Thursday that high levels of radiation were detected about 19 miles from Fukushima Daiichi.

Watch aerial shots from Fukushima-Daiichi Video

Thousands of residents around Fukushima Daiichi have been evacuated, as have most of the plant's workers. But in what will likely go down as one of history's most poignant acts of courage, about 180 highly trained nuclear operators have stayed behind, knowing it might mean serious illness or death.

"The workers at this site are involved in a heroic endeavor," said Robert Alvarez of the U.S. Department of Energy.

As of Friday evening, almost 7,000 people were dead, more than 10,000 were missing, and no one expects officials are done counting.

The scale of the disaster led Emperor Akihito, a ceremonial but revered figure, to address his country Wednesday on national television, a first during such a crisis.

He encouraged Japan to continue "putting forth its best effort to save all suffering people" and applauded how his countrymen had handled the crises unfolding in their homeland. The world felt the same, he noted.

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"These world leaders also say their citizens are impressed with how calm the Japanese people have remained, how they are helping each other and how organized they are. I think it is important that we share the difficult days and overcome this disaster," he said.

I think it is important that we share the difficult days and overcome this disaster.
--Emperor Akihito

Though the Japanese have been criticized for their conformity and deference to authority -- and they've even heard a few assertions that they're stoic -- experts say this is what keeps the country together, what makes its national character beyond reproach, why citizens put the collective before the individual.

Even in the most horrific videos, you don't hear screaming. In place of the stampedes and panic that often accompany national catastrophe, in Japan you see neighbors coolly helping neighbors, noodle shops offering free meals, grocery stores lowering prices and consumers voluntarily rationing.

The world watches from afar, awed by the way the Japanese remain so collected. The Japanese know working together will be their triumph, and already, there are triumphs of the human spirit.

There was the 60-year-old man found 9 miles off the Fukushima coast, waving a red flag and clutching a floating beam from his home.

Watch how the man clung to life, home Video

There was the story of rice farmer Tsuna Kimura, 83, who is now safe in a shelter after riding her bicycle out of the tsunami's path.

Watch how she escaped Video

An Ishinomaki man in his 20s was rescued from the rubble 96 hours after the quake. In Otsuchi, a 75-year-old woman was pulled from a destroyed building. In Miyagi prefecture, three elderly people were found after being trapped in a mud- and debris-covered car for 20 hours. In Yamamoto, a helicopter lifted a couple from the roof of their home, giving them an aerial view of the watery wasteland that could have been their end.

It is as though the Japanese already see a future, joyful occasions that will buoy the nation as it grapples with the crisis for what could be months, but more likely, years to come.

Eventually replacing the images of devastation will be more tearful reunions with grandmothers and grandchildren, fathers who found loved ones after losing all hope, mothers clutching sisters, brothers, cousins and youngsters, afraid to let go for fear they might lose them again.

Recovery from so many disasters will never be simple, but the Japanese know it will be tedious, perhaps impossible, if they don't stand together as one.

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