MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
In Japan, the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami now stands at more than 11,000, with at least 16,000 still missing. Work crews can't begin to remove the mountains of debris strewn along hundreds of miles of coastline until they recover the bodies buried beneath.
NPR's John Burnett reports from the former seaside resort of Takata, where at least one in 10 residents is dead or missing.
(Soundbite of vehicles)
JOHN BURNETT: On Wednesday at 9:15 in the morning, Noriaki Osaka finally found the bodies of his mother and sister, interred in the ruins of their house beside the highway in Takata.
Kiyoshi Osaka would have been 101 years old next month. She enjoyed haiku and sewing. They found her body, as her son had predicted, close to her favorite recliner. The body of his sister, Junco, was found close by because she would have tried to save her wheelchair-bound mother, as the great wave swept inland and engulfed their two-story brick home.
Mr. NORIAKI OSAKA: (Japanese language spoken)
BURNETT: It is very good. There was so much debris, I've been looking for them for two weeks, says her relieved son. Today, all the neighbors gave us a hand and we found them. So I am happy.
In a solemn ritual repeated day after day in these ruined coastal cities, relief workers carry the bodies of the mother and daughter, shrouded in muddy blankets, into a white ambulance. It speeds them to the nearest makeshift morgue for identification.
Kiyoshi and Junco Osaka become victims numbers 650 and 651 brought here to the gymnasium of Yahagi Junior High School. It's one of four body collection centers in Takata.
(Soundbite of door)
BURNETT: Entering the gym through a squeaky sliding door, there are two policemen sit at tables with tabulations of the dead. The wrapped bodies are laid out on the wooden floor behind them, hidden from view by a blue tarp. Someone has lit incense to cover up any smell; an unseasonably cold early spring has also helped to slow decomposition.
Relatives go in and come out. A 66-year-old housewife named Takuko Konno emerges.
Ms. TAKUKO KONNO: (Japanese language spoken)
BURNETT: She has found the bodies of her nephew and his wife inside the gym. But Konno's sister and daughter are still missing. She's most distressed about her daughter, who took refuge in a seaside civic center that was gutted by the rushing waters. Konno has gone from place to place looking for her daughter's body. She will continue checking.
Ms. KONNO: (Japanese language spoken)
BURNETT: The Japan Self-Defense Force Coast Guard is using helicopters to search the sea for bodies. The ground Self-Defense Force has been put in charge of collecting the dead onshore. But in practice, the task is so huge that everyone is pitching in; neighbors, police, volunteer firemen and professional firemen. They generally rely on heavy equipment.
(Soundbite of heavy machinery)
BURNETT: There are three of these construction cranes with big jaws removing the debris. And there appear to be 20 to 30 workers in bright orange coveralls, masks and helmets, waiting until they're needed to remove a body.
Standing at a table with binoculars and a two-way radio, like a general surveying the battlefield, is Shinpai Kurihara. He's fire chief of a prefecture near Tokyo that has been assigned to Takata.
Mr. SHINPAI KURIHARA (Fire Chief): (Through Translator) We insist we're still doing rescue, because lots of peoples' loved ones are missing, and if there's a one in a million chance, we want to rescue someone alive. If the person is found dead, we will treat the body with respect as much as possible.
(Soundbite of heavy machinery)
BURNETT: The steel claw tears into the carved stonework on the roof of a lovely historic house that was torn off its foundation by the tsunami. The owner watches sadly from the highway.
Mr. HIDEHIKO IWASAKI: (Through Translator) This is 300 years old.
BURNETT: Is it his house?
Mr. IWASAKI: (Through Translator) His house.
BURNETT: Hidehiko Iwasaki watches the crane finish off his home, where generations of his relatives have lived since the Shogun period. But all he has lost is the family home, not the family. He says everyone managed to scramble to higher ground.
But the searchers are under orders to look inside every house for bodies. Only then can the trucks come and begin to haul away the remains of Takata.
John Burnett, NPR News, in northeast Japan.