Emotions Fuel Searches For The Missing In Japan Thousands of Japanese are crisscrossing the area where the tsunami hit, trying to find missing loved ones. Hand-scrawled notes plead from message boards, asking relatives to call. One 23-year-old spent $800 and 18 hours to get to her parents' home when she couldn't reach them by phone.

Emotions Fuel Searches For The Missing In Japan

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

In Japan, nuclear plant operators are struggling to avoid meltdown, and thousands of people are crisscrossing the area where the earthquake and tsunami hit, hoping to find lost family members.

SIEGEL: Japan says about 2,000 bodies have been found so far, but the death toll could rise to at least 10,000. We'll hear more about the nuclear reactors in a few minutes. First, NPR's Rob Gifford has been talking with survivors and with people searching for the missing.

ROB GIFFORD: Shoko Ono is a real estate agent in Tokyo, 200 miles south of where her parents and grandparents live near Sendai. When the earthquake struck on Friday, the 23-year-old tried over and over to call. But with all phone lines and cell phone reception down, there was only one thing left to do.

Ms. SHOKO ONO (Real Estate Agent, Tokyo): (Foreign Language Spoken)

GIFFORD: I went to the bank and took out as much money as I could, she says, then jumped on the train north. When there were no more trains, she took taxis. It cost her the best part of $800. But here she is 18 hours later, approaching her home near Sendai, where thousands of displaced people are being sheltered in temporary evacuation centers.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign Language Spoken)

GIFFORD: At one center, in an elementary school in a suburb of Sendai, several thousand people listen to announcements - men, women, children, babies, pensioners, all squeezed into classrooms, their mattresses and blankets lining the classroom floors like sardines. Some listen to a local radio station, which broadcasts lists of names of survivors to help them connect with loved ones.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign Language Spoken)

GIFFORD: But here, just inside the entry of the elementary school that's being used as an evacuation center, there's a huge board, a billboard with all sorts of hand-scrawled notes on, saying the names of people that they're looking for, saying, we're safe. Come and find us on the third floor.

This one here is saying: looking for an 80-year-old grandmother, small with white hair. Please, please call this number if you see her.

Ms. NAOMI ABE: (Foreign Language Spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign Language Spoken)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Foreign Language Spoken)

GIFFORD: Standing, looking at the messages, Naomi Abe and her friend point out and exclaim as they see her sister's name scrawled on the board. But then the rollercoaster of emotions that is coursing through this town comes shuddering through her, as she realizes the message is written not by her sister, but by her sister's children, who are also searching for her sister, their mother.

Ms. ABE: (Foreign Language Spoken)

GIFFORD: Her Japanese stoicism stretched to breaking point, Abe weeps as she writes her cell phone number next to the message on the board, with a note for her sister to call her.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

GIFFORD: Outside Sendai, Shoko Ono, the 23-year-old who's taken the $800 taxi ride from Tokyo, completes the last part of her journey to her parents' house on foot.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

GIFFORD: The family dog welcomes her to a home largely undamaged by the earthquake, and a mother stunned by her arrival.

Ms. S. ONO: (Foreign Language Spoken)

Ms. ONO: (Foreign Language Spoken)

Mr. ONO: (Foreign Language Spoken)

GIFFORD: There's no hugging or kissing, just gasps of surprise and shock as she stands and bows to her parents, and they bow, too the emotion of the moment palpable, even though nobody touches anyone.

Ms. ONO: (Foreign Language Spoken)

GIFFORD: We're all right, says her mother, though we have no electricity or water. We don't know about your grandparents, she tells her daughter. I'm sure their house must have been completely destroyed. But we haven't heard from them, and there's no way to get to where they live near the ocean. We just hope they've been evacuated somewhere else. But it seems impossible to us that they might still be alive.

Rob Gifford, NPR News in Sendai, northeastern Japan.

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