Vintage: Japan, eight years on: Rescue South Africa’s assistance
By Colin Deiner, Chief Director, Department of Local Government, Western Cape
In the early hours of 11 March 2011, a massive 8,9-magnitude earthquake occurred off the north east coast of Japan.
The earthquake triggered a massive tsunami which killed approximately 8 500 people and caused the formation of 15 metre walls of water that swept across rice fields, engulfed entire towns, dragged houses onto highways and tossed cars and boats over large areas. Some waves reached 10 kilometres inland into the Miyagi Prefecture on Japan's east coast. The tsunami also damaged or destroyed more than 126 000 buildings and 1 400 roads.
The disaster was further compounded by massive damage which occurred at the Fukushima nuclear power plant when three reactors suffered catastrophic structural damage which led to the threat of core exposure and the resultant nuclear fallout.
Following an assessment by Japanese authorities, an international request for assistance was made by the Prime Minister of Japan, who personally took command of the rescue and relief operation.
A discussion was held between the South African Department of International Relations and Regional Cooperation (DIRCO) and the NGO, Rescue South Africa and it was agreed that the department would assist Rescue South Africa in mounting a response operation to Japan as soon as possible.
A South African disaster response team was deployed from a number of emergency services and NGOs. The team consisted of 50 members and included the following:
Preparation for the response posed many challenges to the planning team and a lot of time was spent ensuring the task force would be one hundred percent prepared to meet the challenges they would face in the tsunami stricken area.
New challenges confronting the team were the planning for possible exposure to high radiation levels, dealing with frequent tsunami evacuation alerts and the cold weather which was prevailing in the region.
A major challenge was the acquiring of a suitable charter aircraft and preparation of 12 tons of cargo including 2,4 tons of water, 1,2 tons of food, 8,4 tons of specialised rescue equipment and camping gear. It was a strict requirement of the Japanese authorities that any team responding had to be totally self-sufficient and not be an added burden on the country who was dealing with the many people left homeless by the disaster.
A number of rescue and disaster response teams had indicated their willingness to respond but were refused entry into Japan due to their inability to demonstrate sufficient ability to be self-sufficient for a prolonged period of time.
The SA rescue team deployed from OR Tambo International Airport on a chartered Boeing 767 ER-200 aircraft on 16 March 2011, following a briefing by the Ambassador of Japan to South Africa, Mr Toshiro Ozawa. The first leg of the flight took approximately eight hours to the Maldives where a forced 10 hour layover for mandatory aircraft crew rest allowed the team leadership to conduct mandatory safety and medical briefings as well as the Japanese embassy staff to inform the team on Japanese customs and protocols. A further 11 hour flight got the team to Narita Airport, Tokyo, at 12h00 on 18 March where they were met by the South African Ambassador to Japan, Gert Grobler. The South African Mission in Tokyo made two of their staff members available to accompany the team to the disaster area and further assisted with all immigration and customs formalities.
The embassy arranged transport for the team which consisted of four light trucks and nine mini busses. The vehicles were collected in Tokyo.
The first day of operations required the team to carry out deep void searches near an airport complex in Natori City (approximately 15 km from Sendai). The team faced a number of hazards which included slippery surfaces and areas covered with deep mud as well as strong winds, which dislodged damaged structural elements (such as corrugated iron sheets) and blew them dangerously close to where the team was working. A number of aircraft hangars, workshops and homes were searched together with other teams however no victims were recovered. Later in the afternoon the recon team was replaced by other rescue squads who had completed the erecting of the camp. The operation was concluded at approximately 16h00 and all members returned to the camp site where they were allocated sleeping accommodation and the programme for the rest of the operational phase was developed by the team management.
The team deployed into Natori City which had suffered massive devastation over a large scale. The South African team reported to a cleared area, which was used as a staging area for fire rescue services which responded from throughout Japan (even as far afield as Hiroshima and Osaka). The day’s operations consisted of dividing the team’s area of responsibility up into three search zones and deploying each of the rescue squads into a particular area. During the course of the morning one victim was discovered in a flooded area and the team assisted the Japanese police in removing the lightly trapped victim from the debris and moving him over difficult terrain where he was handed over to police forensics staff.
During the afternoon the team had to be evacuated due to a tsunami warning. Just as the team had mounted their vehicles the warning was cancelled and the team returned to work but a large earthquake shook the area where the team was operating soon thereafter and it was decided in the interests of safety to withdraw from the area and return to the base camp.
The second day of deployment in Natori City concluded the searching of all the remaining structures and three victims were recovered following deep void exploration operations in homes located close to an estuary with a high wall facing the ocean. The victims recovered presented very little trauma and the bodies were largely intact and it is surmised that many of the deaths occurred by drowning. The freezing weather also ensured that the bodies were preserved for a longer period of time.
The only remaining areas to search was a large collection of flooded rice paddies which had formed a lake onto which cars, debris from houses and a number of boats and water craft had been relocated by the massive tsunami waves. It was decided that a waterborne operation would be carried out the following day whereby trained water rescue specialists would be deployed in rubber canoes into the lake to search the debris which were located in a number of different locations.
After careful planning by the team management and the water rescue specialists in the team a comprehensive water search and recovery operation was launched on the third day of work in Natori City. A major safety consideration was that the rescuers on the water would be far away from the evacuation routes in the event of a tsunami alert and therefore would be badly exposed. This problem was addressed by ensuring that, at all times, the boat crews would identify a straight line of escape from any point where they might be at the time of the alert. Extra lookouts were also posted in strategic positions.
Due to the high levels of contamination of the water the teams were operating on, a decontamination point was established which was operated with warm water to counter the possible effects of hypothermia related to the freezing weather.
The team then carried out search and recovery work to the north of the lake while a part of the group accompanied by Mr Kitagawa from the Japanese mission in South Africa and members of the Japanese police. They met with the regional police commander who requested that the team redeploy to the fishing town of Ogatsu. The group travelled to Ogatsu to check out the road conditions and equipment and safety requirements for the following day’s operations. The road to Ogatsu was particularly hazardous due to on-going snowfalls which had fallen on the road surface and would present a new challenge to the convoy drivers. A lot of the roads also wound its way through mountain passes and, at times, became single lane lanes with oncoming traffic.
The first day of operations in Ogatsu involved the searching of a hospital which had been totally engulfed by the tsunami which had hit the town with massive force due to the surrounding mountains which caused the onrushing waters to funnel into the town and burst out back into the main part of the town which was totally destroyed.
The force of the water was evident in the number of body parts that were recovered. Work during this day took place in the midst of an on-going snowfall which had a negative effect on operations.
Day six saw the continuation of search and recovery operations in Ogatsu in which the team recovered a further three victims deep inside collapsed structures. The team worked alone in this area and although certain areas had already been searched by police, they were not able to access the voids in the same manner the SA Rescue team could as they did not have the specialised search equipment. It was this equipment that enabled the SA Rescue team to locate deeply trapped victims.
Work in Ogatsu was concluded late afternoon and the team returned to the base camp in Sendai where it was decided that the entire team would return to Tokyo after the final mission on the following day. Teams were restructured to ensure that all convoy drivers would stay in the base camp for the day were they would assist with packing up the camp before resting for the all-night drive to Tokyo.
Ogatsu is located in a remote part of Japan and at first, many of the local people were apprehensive of the team but as they observed the teams work and interacted with members through interpreters, they took the team to their hearts and were very friendly and grateful to the members. On arrival in Johannesburg after the mission, a Japanese couple, who were originally from Ogatsu and are now living in South Africa, were among the large crowd who greeted the team and thanked them for their work in the town.
The final day of operations saw the team deploy to Takajo City, where a large part of the city had returned to normal and trade had resumed in certain areas. The city still had massive areas which had suffered major destruction and the biggest challenge confronting the rescue teams was the huge piles of motor vehicles that had been piled on top of each other close to the water. In some cases motor vehicles were piled up to five on top of each other. In one area more than fifty vehicles had formed a huge pile in which each car had to be searched individually.
The team conducted an extremely difficult mission late in the afternoon when they recovered the body of a badly trapped person from a car which had been washed up underneath a partially collapsed electric pylon. The recovery took approximately two hours and was made possible by the fact that the team had access to specialised equipment not available to other teams.
Return to South AfricaUpon their return the team was received by the ambassador of Japan to South Africa, Toshiro Ozawa, a delegation from South African Foreign Affairs as well as Kevin Brennan, members of the media, families and friends of Rescue South Africa, and a large number of the public including the Japanese community who turned out to show their appreciation.
The Western Cape contingent were also welcomed back upon their arrival in Cape Town by the Provincial Minister of Local Government and Environmental Affairs, Anton Bredell, who followed the activities of the team throughout and called the team to wish them well while they were working in Ogatsu.
Despite facing massive challenges prior to departure the overall mission was a resounding success. The massive dedication of the CEO of Rescue South Africa, Ian Scher and his commitment to the success of the mission cannot be underestimated.
South African rescue team to Japanese earthquake recognised
In two separate functions in April 2016, the Japanese Ambassador to South Africa, Ambassador Shigeyuki Hiroki, presented certificates of appreciation to the specialist members of the South African urban search and rescue team who served in Japan during the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. The Tshwane event took place at the Japanese Ambassador Shigeyuki Hiroki’s official residence while the Cape Town function was held at the Taj Hotel with Mr Yasushi Naito, Consul of Japan in Cape Town as the program director.
On 11 March 2011, the north eastern coast of Japan was struck by an unprecedented earthquake with a moment magnitude of 9,0, leaving the region with more than 18 000 people’s lives lost or unaccounted for and more than 400 000 displaced.
South Africa sent a 45-member urban search and rescue team comprising of fire fighters, medics, disaster response specialists and seven members of the press to the Miyagi prefecture in the aftermath of the Japan earthquake and tsunami. The Miyagi prefecture was the most affected, with a loss of 9 630 lives and 83 000 houses totally destroyed. The Rescue South Africa (RSA) team served tirelessly in a demanding and difficult situation trying to save lives. “The whole nation is grateful for their professionalism, respect and friendship, demonstrated and expressed to the victims of the disaster,” said Ambassador Shigeyuki Hiroki at the event.
“Five years since the earthquake, people’s daily lives are gradually getting back to normal. Residents in the region are well aware of the fact that today’s reconstruction is founded on the help of the many people from around the world, including South Africa. The presentation of certificates is to reiterate the gratefulness of the Japanese Government and people,” added the Ambassador.
In his speech he said that the catastrophe of 11 March 2011 claimed a tremendous number of irreplaceable lives and caused unprecedented damage, resulting in a period of crisis that impacted the entire nation. Yet, at the same time, it had been a period during which Japan had received an outpouring of sympathy and goodwill from all over the world, including South Africa.
“It was only five days after the disaster that you departed South Africa. Upon arrival at Narita Airport in Tokyo, without taking any rest, you moved straight to the winter cold of Miyagi Prefecture, one of the most affected areas in the disaster. Your activities in the extremely difficult situation, showing your professionalism and passion to save lives, were all shared with us by the accompanying Japanese officers, K (Mr Yasuhisa Kitagawa) and Mawrie (Mr Masaki Morimoto). Your attitude of respecting local tradition and culture was gratefully appreciated by the locals,” said the Ambassador.
“I wish to take this opportunity to also express my profound appreciation to the family members of the rescue team. Your feelings of sending your loved ones to such a disaster area must have been anxious but I believe your love and support to the rescue members gave them even more courage to make them accomplish their mission safely.”
“I would also like to offer my sincere gratitude to all those other people who have supported us. It is true that most of life’s strongest bonds are the ones we create when things are broken. With the support extended from South Africa and all over the world, I am grateful to report to you that the reconstruction process is on a firm path.”
In his speech at the Cape Town event, Mr Yasushi Naito, Consul of Japan in Cape Town read a letter received from Mr Makoto Igarashi, Police liaison chief in charge of the South African team five years ago. “Dear members of the SA Rescue Team, their family members and the concerned officials of the South African Government. Five years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake. We are halfway through our reconstruction process but smiles have returned to our faces, all thanks to you. I will never forget you, no matter how many years pass. Taking this opportunity, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to you and your family. My dream is to see you all again one day. From a ‘member’ of the SA Rescue Team, Takeshi Igarashi, chief inspector, Miyagi Prefectural Police Headquarters.”
In Ambassador Shigeyuki Hiroki’s speech he added that, “Japan drew many lessons from the tragic experience, which showed us how solidarity was even more important than before. Countries, rich and poor, can be brought to their knees by the forces of nature. We believe, however, that the tragic event helped Japan to be at the forefront of international advocacy, especially in hosting a range of meetings including a conference titled: ‘The Third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction’ in March 2014 in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture.”
Ambassador Shigeyuki Hiroki elaborated, “Now it is our turn to share our experience with the rest of the world. In South Africa, we are working closely with the SA government, Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) and the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC) in particular, provincial and local governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), to strengthen the country’s resilience to disasters. Such activities are now expanding throughout the southern Africa region. Our clear message is that we would like to continue and enhance collaboration with the South African role players in disaster management.”
He concluded with, “Siyaquba asimanga,” a Xhosa phrase meaning we are moving forward; we are not stationary.
Some photos courtesy Simon McDonnell