The white minivan stole along back roads, careful to avoid police checkpoints. The pair inside wore face masks and white gloves. They were nervous, furtive even.

Their mission: drive up to a home in this deserted town, rush inside and grab what they could.

But strong-arm burglary wasn't on the minds of the hooded driver and her passenger. Seiko Nikaido and her 73-year-old mother, Eiko, just wanted to get a little piece of their old lives before it was too late.

Evacuated after last month's earthquake and tsunami devastated the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the women were fugitives from their own home.

They knew the situation in their once-bustling hometown of 22,000 was worsening by the day. Hours earlier, nuclear regulatory officials had raised the severity of the crisis to the highest level by international standards, equaling that of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

They also knew that the government was about to extend the radiation hot zone around the nuclear plant from 12 miles to 18 miles and more strictly enforce the new restrictions. Until now, some residents have managed to talk their way back into the evacuation zone; soon, the area probably would be closed even to the police, sealed up like some nuclear tomb.

On Tuesday, the women were desperate to see their home, but fearful.

"I'm afraid of what's in the air here," Seiko said. "But I knew we had to come back."

On the drive to town, swaddled in clothing to protect them from nuclear fallout, they entertained a difficult question: How do you reduce a lifetime of memories and possessions into one mad-dash snatch and scramble?

"I'm going to get some dishes, clothes and my computer: everyday things I can use to start a new life," said Seiko, who along with her mother has relocated to just outside Tokyo. "We can come back to collect the rest, the memories; that is, if they ever let us return here again."

The pair weren't the only ones here on stealthy trips back home. At an intersection near the central business district, a few cars and vans passed cautiously, their drivers covered head to toe as a protection against the hazardous elements, as though off on some Arctic expedition.

When times were good, this town housed workers from the nearby plant, just 10 miles south along northeastern Japan's scenic coastline. But these are no longer good times in Namie.

One of the few creatures on foot Tuesday was a small stray dog that nosed its way past an emptied patisserie with a placard in its front window advertising a live Flamenco show for March 20.

Curtains at one Namie hotel flapped in the wind, licking out through broken windows. Not far away, meandering cows munched on shrubs outside abandoned houses. One passing car contained men in white hazard suits who paused to take measurements of the air.

Hidetoshi Itogawa sat in his sport utility vehicle and shivered in the wind. The whole town, he said, gave him chills.

"I'm in a hurry to get back out of here," the 61-year-old said as he puffed on a cigarette.

His SUV was packed with the fruits of a two-hour search of his home: clothes, small pieces of furniture, a computer. "I don't even know how to use it," he said, motioning toward a laptop. "It belongs to my wife."

Itogawa said it took a long time to summon the nerve to return. "I'm afraid; I'll admit it," he said. "But the government might soon close the area. I knew today was the day."

Some motorists were in too big of a hurry to stop. When approached, one elderly couple wearing face masks waved frantically from inside their car. "No!" the man said. "We have no time to talk!" Another took a detour rather than be approached.

One returning resident wearing a New York Yankees cap said he used to work as a carpenter in the nuclear complex's reactor No. 1, which is now badly damaged.

"The plant once made this town thrive; most people who lived here worked there," said the man, who declined to give his name. "Now they're going to shut it down, so this town will be abandoned as well."

He recalled being stopped outside town by police who said it was too dangerous to enter. "But they finally said I could come back in, but only for 10 minutes."

Just down the street, Chieko Yamagata rushed into her family-owned pharmacy to collect some medicine. As she emerged, a quake later measured at magnitude 6.3 shook Namie. Yamagata, 57, let out a yelp as she hurried out into the street. For a moment, she stood among a small group, feeling the ground shake and listening to buildings groan.

Later she was more blithe about the shaking, which briefly forced workers to evacuate the nuclear plant. "It's nothing," she said. "I've experienced a 9.0 earthquake here."

She paused. "This town is over," she said. "I'm afraid of this place now. I'm afraid of the entire district."

For Seiko Nikaido and her mother, the drive to Namie was a quiet trip down memory lane, on roads that Eiko had been taking since she was a girl. "I love this town so much," the older woman said, a blue towel draped over her head to protect against fallout.

For decades, she lived here with her late husband, who was an advisor to downtown merchants. Seiko was their only child.

They raced toward the family home, perhaps for the final time, like Thelma and Louise on a last-ditch ride. Eiko became quiet, her eyes threatening to fill with tears.

john.glionna@latimes.com