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Believing Risk Was Low, Residents Were Unprepared : Survivors: Many in Nishinomiya had no idea what to do or where to go. Now they are struggling to cope.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the earth heaved and threw her to the ground, when the second floor of her wooden home collapsed on top of her, Michiko Nagare was sure she was going to die.

“I thought I had no hope,” said Nagare, 64, her frail body swathed in blankets and her broken right arm bandaged in a sling as she camped out in the lobby of the Nishinomiya Municipal Hospital, about nine miles from Osaka in western Japan.

Nagare lay buried under rubble for four hours before neighbors could dig her out. The cold bit through her. Whenever she felt faint, her children, who had rushed to the scene, yelled words of encouragement: “You’re OK! Hang in there!”

She did. And, along with her husband, she survived one of the most devastating earthquakes in this region’s history. At last count, the temblor had killed more than 1,800 people, left thousands injured and homeless, snapped roads and train lines and destroyed countless homes.

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It also left scores of shellshocked people who had been completely unprepared for an earthquake in one area of Japan that many here say they long regarded as safe.

“There really have been no earthquakes here. Maybe Hokkaido or Tokyo, but not this Kansai area,” said Kumiko Yamamoto, 41, who evacuated to the Nishinomiya central gymnasium with her family and 1,200 others.

“We weren’t prepared at all. It was as if a bomb had suddenly dropped,” she said. “We thought it was the end. I was so frightened I can’t even describe it.”

Yamamoto’s husband, Takashi, was sleeping on the first floor when the force of the quake bounced him off the floor and woke him. The walls of their rented home collapsed around him, burying him under the debris.

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His first thought was for his family.

They were safe. His wife and two children had been sleeping upstairs. A chest of drawers had fallen on his son Kazunori, 12. But the three managed to punch through a wall to climb out and help the father out of the rubble.

As they huddled in the evacuation center, having eaten only one rice ball shared among them all day, they said they had no idea what to do or where to go.

“We can’t even imagine,” Takashi Yamamoto said. “It all just happened in one minute.”

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As night fell over this middle-class residential area, one of those hardest hit by the quake, the wounded continued to stream into the evacuation center. In one separate room, the living held vigil over the dying. Family and friends hunched over prone bodies, stroking their loved ones’ cheeks, murmuring endearments and wiping away their own tears. Incense burned in one corner for the 144 dead whose corpses lined the room.

Toshiko Yoshida knelt over two bodies, his head bowed in prayer. He said the couple had been his drinking friends. As his eyes filled with tears, he said he had known the wife since she was a child.

All told, Yoshida found four bodies of friends. When the house came crashing down on one of them, he tried to dig through the rubble. But he was too late.

“I’m in a state of shock,” he said. “I don’t know how to describe my feelings.”

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Throughout the city, doctors and other emergency workers were hampered by a cutoff of water, gas and phone lines. At the Nishinomiya Municipal Hospital, the absence of water prevented doctors from performing any surgery or developing X-ray film.

People needing operations were turned away. So was a stretcher carrying the tiny corpses of two children, their mother collapsed over them in grief, clutching a doll.

Most of the 600 quake victims who managed to make it here were given little more than a bandage and ointment, a roof over their heads and a small bite to eat.

“Fortunately, we haven’t gotten many injuries that require major surgery,” said Sadao Noguchi, a Nishinomiya doctor. “We were expecting more intestinal injuries, but it seems either people were killed or they got only slight injuries.”

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Outside, all semblance of normal daily life had abruptly stopped. The clang of the ubiquitous commuter trains was gone, creating an eerie silence broken mainly by the wail of sirens from ambulances and other emergency vehicles.

With virtually all trains stopped, about the only way to move was by car. A run on taxis forced throngs of people at Osaka’s airport to wait three or four hours for transportation home. Main thoroughfares were paralyzed by traffic, as drivers reported taking two hours to move six miles or less. Yawning cracks in many roads made the going even slower.

One family of five, clutching blankets, bags and the family cat, walked with vacant expressions along Highway 171. Asked where they intended to go, the mother repeated: “We don’t know what’s happening. We don’t know what’s happening.”

Along the route from Osaka to Nishinomiya, home after home had collapsed, as if a great fist had smashed second floors on top of first floors. Survivors told of hearing cries for help coming from within the rubble, then growing faint and stopping.

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Tadashi Kato, section chief at the gymnasium evacuation center, said rescue workers would grope to feel whether hands or feet were warm. If they were not, the workers would move on, leaving countless bodies still buried.

In one section of town, the bullet train line had snapped in two, its great concrete pillars buckled, exposing crumpled iron reinforcement rods.

The three-floor Itami train station had caved in, leaving one train hanging partly over the tracks. Normally a bustling station serving more than 40,000 people from 6 a.m. until midnight, the abandoned site was guarded by a solitary police officer. He said the quake occurred early enough--5:46 a.m.--that no shop owners were in, but it was not clear whether station personnel remained trapped in the debris.

Shops were shuttered, even the 24-hour Lawson convenience store.

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Kato, of the evacuation center, said most stores were open during the day but closed after selling all of their food, water and supplies. He reported seeing one bookstore with its windows broken, but nothing appeared to have been stolen.

Indeed, despite the devastation, a mood of calm and order prevailed. There was no ransacking of stores or homes reported. Survivors told stories of strangers helping strangers, neighbors digging each other out and sharing food and supplies.

As she lay pinned under piles of debris, Michiko Nagare said, so many people came to help and encourage her that she lost track of the number. Her daughter. Her son. Her son’s wife. Her neighbors.

But even as she recounted what she called the most horrifying day of her life, worse even than the war, she was most worried about someone else.

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A seamstress, Nagare had promised to line a skirt and deliver it the next day. As she surveyed her swollen and injured hands, wondering if she would ever sew again, she fretted over her customer.

“She may be surprised when she comes to the house and finds it collapsed,” she said. “But I hope she understands.”

Researcher Chiaki Kitada of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.


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