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PICTURES: The ghosts of Japan's disaster still haunt 5 years later

Eye-witnesses to the events of Japans “triple disaster” recount their memories.

Source: AP

IT’S FIVE YEARS since Japan’s “triple disaster” – earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis – unfolded after 11 March, 2011.

As the crisis hit, Associated Press journalists fanned out across the northern region of Tohoku to report and record what had happened in pictures, stories and video footage.

Here, some of them recall memories and scenes that haunt them to this day:


Japan Tsunami Memories Hotel employees squat down in horror at the hotel's entrance in Tokyo after a strong earthquake hit Japan Source: AP

I was at my desk watching the prime minister getting questioned in Parliament on TV when an ominous message from Japan’s disaster early-warning system flashed on the screen: A major earthquake was about to strike.

Somebody in the newsroom shouted and everyone froze. About 10 seconds later, the building started shaking violently, making the blinds slam against the windows of our 7th-floor office. I could hear the building creak and groan as it rocked back and forth. Some staffers dove under their desks.

In a chat window to editors in Bangkok, I quickly messaged: “HUGE QUAKE.” I started typing an alert to send on the wire, but it was hard because my keyboard was moving so much. The shaking went on and on — definitely more than a minute, perhaps two. It felt like forever. Glancing up at the ceiling, I wondered briefly if I would die. My thoughts turned to my wife and boys. “Lord, help!” I prayed. Colleague Miles Edelsten, video camera on his shoulder, came to the window behind me, filming people pouring out of the nearby building onto a plaza below.

Finally, the shaking subsided – and everyone in the bureau jumped into action.

— Malcolm Foster, editor, former Tokyo bureau chief.


Japan Tsunami Memories Cars sit atop damaged buildings in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan Source: AP/Koji Sasahara

My strongest memory was a scene I photographed in Onagawa: Cars on top of a three-story apartment building. It looked like their escape had been cut off and that they had been lifted up by the tsunami more than 20 meters (65 feet) above the ground. I was struck by the enormous power and ferociousness of nature. It looked like a scene from hell as I imagined that there were probably many dead bodies in the debris all around me.

— Koji Sasahara, photographer


Japan Tsunami Memories A convoy of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force vehicles arrives in the tsunami-hit area for recovery operations in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, after the earthquake Source: AP

I still think about the tsunami some nights when I’m falling asleep. I remember standing on a hilltop looking across the flattened town of Minami-Sanriku as a line of green army trucks moved through the destruction.

The hill was home to one of the town’s tsunami evacuation centers, and several cars parked there had been lifted up and pushed together in the corner of a lot. It was hard to imagine the water had reached this height.

The first story of a villa perched on the hilltop, facing the ocean, had been eviscerated. Dead fish were scattered in a pile of broken wooden boards nearby

— Todd Pitman, reporter, former Bangkok bureau chief

Japan Tsunami Memories A dead fish in the devastated city of Ofunato Source: AP


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Japan Tsunami Memories A man walks through the destroyed neighborhood below Weather Hill in Natori, Japan, on March 2011 Source: AP/Wally Santana

As reports of damage and radiation leakage at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant started to spread, (reporter) Eric Talmadge and I were faced with a very unusual situation – working in a possibly radioactive area. Being kilometers away from any physical tsunami damage, trying to calculate risk and our movements was very hard with this silent, invisible problem surrounding us. The fear of being radiated was very much on our minds.

Standing in line day after day to be scanned for radiation levels was nerve-racking. The long lines at relief centers of displaced residents — mothers with crying children, fathers and the elderly — all waiting and hoping not to be the one detected by the alarm. Every few dozen people, a loud chirp went off, causing everyone to stop and look to see who it was.

Japan Tsunami Memories Residents evacuated from areas surrounding the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant are checked for radiation exposure in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan, in 2011 Source: AP/Wally Santana

People with higher radiation levels were taken for further testing. It had the collective effect on everyone that this could happen to any of us. You might have been high above the water levels but straight in the path of the radiation wind. These were victims marked not by broken bones and cut flesh but by anxiety from an invisible threat.

— Wally Santana, photographer


Japan Tsunami Memories Japanese police officers in protective suits carry a victim at a tsunami-devastated area in the town of Namie as towers of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant are seen in the distance Source: AP

One month after the disaster struck, we slipped into the evacuation zone around the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility. We approached as near as we dared, just a few kilometers from the plant, and through my viewfinder I saw a scene straight from a science fiction movie: Men in white spacesuits carrying body bags across the gray ash-like wasteland left by the tsunami.

Curtains flapping from windows of washed-up bungalows, beached fishing boats and a crumbled road filled the foreground. In the distance were the iron chimneys of the nuclear plant. The scene captured all aspects of the triple disaster, and as I stepped back from my camera I thought, “Wow, I’ve got it all in one frame.”

— Miles Edelsten, former senior video producer.

Read: Were deformed daisies found near Fukushima caused by radiation?

Read: This robot just filmed what it’s like inside a melted nuclear reactor

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