Death toll hits 98 in Japan quake

SUZU – Rescuers sifted through rubble Saturday as focus turned to recovering bodies rather than finding survivors five days after a huge earthquake struck central Japan, with 98 people now confirmed killed.

The death toll from the New Year’s Day 7.5-magnitude quake was certain to rise, with 211 people in the Ishikawa region of Japan’s main Honshu island still unaccounted for, authorities said.

The work of thousands of rescue workers has been hampered by bad weather – snow was forecast for Sunday – and roads torn apart by gaping cracks and hit by fallen trees and rocks.

Two elderly women were pulled from the wreckage of their homes on Thursday, but since there has been no reason for cheer.

In Suzu, where dozens of homes lie in ruins, a dog barked while an AFP team filmed the clean-up operation on Friday, the signal of a grim discovery.

“Training for disaster rescue dogs begins with something similar to a game of hide-and-seek,” canine trainer Masayo Kikuchi told AFP.

“Finally they are trained to bark when seeing a person under the rubble.”

Houses containing any fatalities that are discovered are being marked and left alone until a coroner can come with relatives to identify the body.

In the port city fishing boats were sunk or lifted like toys onto the shore by tsunami waves that also reportedly swept one person away.

In nearby Wajima, a huge fire destroyed hundreds of structures on the first day and toppled a seven-storey building.

“I was relaxing on New Year’s Day when the quake happened. My relatives were all there and we were having fun,” Hiroyuki Hamatani, 53, said amid burnt-out cars and fallen telegraph poles.

“The house itself is standing but it’s far from livable now… I don’t have the space in my mind to think about the future,” he told AFP.

‘Doing our best’

Authorities said on Saturday morning that 211 people were unaccounted for, down from an earlier count of 222.

The death toll was raised to 98 from 94, with more than 450 people injured. The dead included a junior high school boy visiting his family, reports said.

Around 23,800 households were without electricity in the Ishikawa region and more than 66,400 households were without running water. Power and water outages have also affected hospitals and facilities for taking care of elderly and disabled people.

More than 31,400 people have been staying in 357 government shelters. Many communities were still isolated.

“We are doing our best to conduct rescue operations at the isolated villages… However, the reality is that the isolation has not been resolved to the extent that we would like,” regional governor Hiroshi Hase said Friday.

Japan experiences hundreds of earthquakes every year and most cause no damage, with strict building codes in place for more than four decades.

The country is haunted by a massive 9.0 magnitude undersea quake in 2011, which triggered a tsunami that left around 18,500 people dead or missing.

It also swamped the Fukushima atomic plant, causing one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. – AFP