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In Japan, the search for life yields death and devastation

Rescuers found few signs of hope among the ruins of Sendai on March 14, 2011.

Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images/Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

The squad of police officers made their way tentatively across what was once the parking lot of the Sendai Army Flight School, poking at the shifting ground beneath their feet with long wooden poles.

They used their sticks to prod at the wreckage of lives that had been lifted up by Friday's tsunami and deposited here on southern edge of this battered city. Splintered homes, flipped cars, a living-room chair, a basketball.

But every now and again, one of the poles would strike something more unsettling: a human being.

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"We find them everywhere. In the cars, beneath the rubble. No one knows," said Sho Oji, who was directing a team of a dozen police officers digging for the dead. He said rescue workers found more than 1,000 bodies in the airport area alone over the past three days.

He was interrupted by a series of shrill whistle blasts. Another body had been found, deep in the sea of detritus. The entire team of police scrambled to the site, hoisting first a green tarp to protect the dignity of the dead, then a stretcher bearing a covered corpse.

And so it went across Japan on Monday, as rescue workers made one ghastly discovery after another. Some 2,000 bodies were discovered along the coastline north of Sendai as crews finally reached the hard-hit areas of Minamisanriku and Ishinomaki City. In Minamisanriku, it's estimated that 10,000 of the town's pre-disaster population of 17,000 are missing.

In Iwate prefecture, farther north, 12,000 people are missing in the town of Otsuchi, which had a pre-disaster population of 15,000. Another town, Rikuzentakata, which has a population of 23,000 people, has been described as "almost completely wiped out."

Along the coastal highway being used by relief workers to access the vast disaster area, crews of fire fighters and paramedics loaded bodies - some of them tiny - onto blue tarpaulins and lifted them away from the rubble into waiting ambulances. Eager birds circled overhead.

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Though hope remained that some of the missing might yet be found alive, the overwhelming majority of the news was bad.

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The official death toll stood at 2,414, The Associated Press reported, but a police officer in hard-hit Miyagi prefecture - the region in which Sendai is the largest city - estimated that at least 10,000 died in Miyagi alone. Tens of thousands of people were still officially missing on Monday, more than 72 hours after the initial 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered the tsunami.

There have been nearly 200 registered aftershocks since Friday's quake, many of them magnitude 6.0 or greater. The ground in Sendai continued to rumble at regular intervals Monday, with officials announcing at one point that another major tsunami was imminent, only to cancel the warning minutes later.

The warnings didn't stop some local residents from emerging for the first time in days to take a look at the flattened coastal neighbourhoods of the city.

"It was such a comfortable, agreeable place," said Kan Kichi, a 70-year-old retired engineer, as he wandered through the wreckage of coastal Sendai. He pointed to his friend's rice paddies, and to where he used to go swimming and fishing as a child.

In his description, the coast sounded serene. But the new reality is anything but: a white Toyota Nova was buried back-doors deep in the side of a hill, a child's bicycle lay in mud, an ocean fish struggled futilely to swim out of a small puddle it was trapped in.

"It's beyond my imagination," Mr. Kichi said. "I can't imagine how long it will take to get it back to the way it was."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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