U.S. Rescuer Sent To Japan: 'Off The Charts' Disaster As search and rescue teams from all over Japan work through tsunami debris in the northeast, they have been joined by a team from the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Leader Dave Stone, who has worked recently in New Zealand and Haiti, says his team has never seen anything of "this scope and magnitude."
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U.S. Rescuer Sent To Japan: 'Off The Charts' Disaster

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

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

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There was a minute of silence today in Japan at precisely 2:46 p.m. local time. That was exactly one week after the earthquake struck that led to a tsunami and damage to a nuclear power plant. The nuclear crisis has in many ways taken over the news agenda and overshadowed the tragedy of thousands of deaths caused by the tsunami.

Efforts at rescue and recovery are continuing though, with teams from all over the world flying in to help. NPR's Rob Gifford met one U.S. search and rescue team that's assisting Japanese efforts in the northern coastal town of Kamaishi.

(Soundbite of rubble)

ROB GIFFORD: Hiromo Wakabayashi is a fireman a long way from home. He and his team have traveled from the very far south of Japan to help out in the rescue and recovery here in the northeast. They're sifting through the rubble in Kamaishi, brick by brick, wooden beam by wooden beam.

Mr. HIROMA WAKABAYASHI (Fireman): (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: Survivors are very unlikely, he says, but this is our last effort to find some. We found many bodies already.

The Japanese firefighters have now been joined by a search and rescue team from California.

Mr. DAVE STONE (Los Angeles County Fire Department): Yeah, I'm Dave Stone. I work for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which is in Los Angeles, California. I'm a battalion chief.

GIFFORD: Stone and his crew are in the fourth day of helping out. They're one of two U.S. teams - the other in Fairfax, Virginia - trained and authorized to help in rescue missions abroad. Many of the 74-member team helped out after Hurricane Katrina, after the earthquake in Haiti last year, and some had just got back to L.A. from the quake in New Zealand when the call came to go to Japan. Even after seeing all of that, Dave Stone is staggered by the moonscape of devastation around him.

Mr. STONE: You know, I would say it's off the charts. We have homes that are, you know, they're upside down, so we have to try to figure out a way to get inside without getting injured. So you have a vehicle on top of a house. So the complexity of what we're dealing with is just, we haven't - this is something new for us. We've had stuff on a smaller scale. Like when we were in Haiti, we had collapsed buildings we had to search. We had the same similar thing, but not to this scope and magnitude.

GIFFORD: The idea that anything could make the Haiti earthquake looks small scale gives a sense of the task faced in Japan. The difference with Haiti though, says Stone, is that people were found buried under the rubble days after the earthquake. Here with the tsunami there was no halfway - you either got out or you 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 the Japanese tsunami warning system worked.

Mr. STONE: I think the takeaway for me when I get back home is, is if there's an earthquake in California, or we even have tsunami potential in California, is heed the warning. We have wildlife 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 it'll be OK. Because if you look at what - I mean just standing here and all the destruction, this tells you when it's time to go, you got to go.

GIFFORD: But even heeding the warning was not enough to save everyone. Tomoko and Yukimitsu Horikiri are back sifting through what's left of their house to see if there's anything to salvage.

Mr. TOMOKO HORIKIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

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

Mr. HORIKIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: 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.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Kamaishi, northeastern Japan.

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