U.S. Rescuer Sent To Japan: 'Off The Charts' Disaster

Members of a U.S. search and rescue team from Los Angeles County stand in snow Thursday while on a recovery operation in Kamaishi, Japan. Two search and rescue teams from the U.S. and a team from the U.K., with combined numbers of around 220 personnel, are helping in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

Members of a U.S. search and rescue team from Los Angeles County stand in snow Thursday while on a recovery operation in Kamaishi, Japan. Two search and rescue teams from the U.S. and a team from the U.K., with combined numbers of around 220 personnel, are helping in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. Matt Dunham/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Dunham/AP

A minute of silence was observed in Japan on Friday, exactly one week after the earthquake that unleashed a tsunami and ignited a nuclear crisis. The critical situation at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant has in many ways overshadowed the tragedy of the thousands who've died. But the rescue and recovery effort continues, with teams from all over the world — including the U.S. — flying in to help.

Firefighter Hiromo Wakabayashi is a long way from home. He and his team traveled from the very far south of Japan to help with rescue and recovery in the northeast. They are sifting through the rubble in Kamaishi, brick by brick, wooden beam by wooden beam.

It's very unlikely they'll find survivors, he says, but they are making a last effort to find some — or at least to find bodies. Joining that effort is a team from California.

Members of search and rescue teams from Los Angeles County and Fairfax County, Va., get a briefing Monday before heading to Japan to help with rescue and recovery efforts.

Members of search and rescue teams from Los Angeles County and Fairfax County, Va., get a briefing Monday before heading to Japan to help with rescue and recovery efforts. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The Los Angeles County Fire Department search and rescue team is one of two U.S. teams — the other is from Fairfax, Va. — that are trained and authorized to help in rescue missions abroad. Many from the 74-member team helped out after Hurricane Katrina and after the earthquake in Haiti, and some had just gotten back to Los Angeles from the quake in New Zealand when they got the call to go to Japan.

Even after seeing all of those other disasters, Battalion Chief Dave Stone says he is staggered by the moonscape of devastation around him.

"I would say it's off the charts," he says. "We have homes that are upside down, so we have to figure out a way to get inside without getting injured. We have a vehicle on top of a house. The complexity of what we are dealing with, this is something new for us. We've had stuff on a smaller scale, like when were in Haiti, we had collapsed buildings we had to search, we had the same, similar thing, but not to this scope and magnitude."

The idea that anything could make the Haiti earthquake look small-scale gives a sense of the task Japan is facing. The difference with Haiti, though, Stone says, is that people were found buried under the rubble days after the earthquake. Here, with the tsunami, there was no halfway: People either got out, or they drowned.

Stone says they are finding bodies, and there will be many of them, but the fact that so many people did escape, with only 13 minutes' warning, shows that the Japanese tsunami warning system worked.

"The takeaway for me, when I get back home, is if there is an earthquake in California, or we even have tsunami potential in California, is heed the warning," he says. "We have wildland fires where we ask people to evacuate, mud debris flows because of flooding. Don't think you can make a stand, or you can stay and you'll be OK. Because if you look — just standing here, all the destruction, this tells you: When it's time to go, you gotta go."

But even heeding the warnings is not always enough. Tomoko and Yukimitsu Horikiri are sifting through what's left of their house to see if there is anything to salvage.

Tomoko Horikiri was out at sea fishing when he saw strange whirlpools appearing offshore. He headed back onshore as the alarms were sounding, jumped in his car and drove like mad to get away. He got to a fork in the road, and in that split second, he chose to go right when everyone else was going left.

He doesn't know why he chose to go right, but he says the wave hit the people who went left, and all of them were washed away.

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