OTSUCHI, Iwate Prefecture–Photos taken by a town employee who narrowly escaped death in the 2011 disaster show Otsuchi government officials calmly working, unaware of the approaching tsunami that would kill 40 civil servants.
The recently released photographs are also prompting residents to ask the town government to reassess its report of what happened before and after the tsunami swamped the former town hall four-and-a-half years ago.
The 28 photographs are all dated March 11, 2011. The first one was snapped at 2:56:56 p.m., soon after the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake struck of the northeastern coast of Japan. The last one was taken at 3:26:54 p.m., when the ensuing tsunami was destroying the town.
The first photo shows fallen ceiling lights, shattered glass and other damage inside the town hall about 10 minutes after the initial tremor.
Another image shows town employees setting up a disaster response headquarters outside the building.
There is even an ominous photograph of water spewing from a hand pump in front of the town hall, but there appears no sense of urgency among the town employees.
“I was taking the pictures because I was ordered to record the activities of the disaster response headquarters,” said the employee who took the photos. “I never imagined that a tsunami was coming toward us.”
The photographs take on a dramatic change with a shot of cars being carried away by the tsunami around the facility. The last image is taken from inside the town hall and shows, through a window, the wreckage of a house being pushed toward the building.
The employee ran to the second floor of the town hall when he saw the tsunami but was soon swept up by the water. He managed to save himself by reaching a window and climbing to the rooftop.
He put the camera on the floor to help a colleague get to the rooftop. The camera was left there when the worker climbed to an even higher rooftop level to avoid a larger tsunami wave.
When he returned to the building the next day, he found the camera hanging from a rooftop.
The images in the camera were left untouched until they were discovered in the town hall’s archives this summer, when Otsuchi was putting together a record of the 2011 disaster.
In its final assessment report of the disaster published in March 2014, the town government admitted its shortcomings in responding to the earthquake and tsunami, including failure to order the public workers to evacuate to a hilltop.
However, many residents have criticized the report as lacking validity in its facts, depth in its investigation, and details on what employees were doing at the time.
“As far as we can tell from the photos, there is no urgency among the town employees fearing that a tsunami may come,” said Tokumi Saito, a professor emeritus of local disaster management at Iwate University. “The town government should reassess what happened, including why there were no orders issued to evacuate to higher ground and whether these decisions affected the actions of the townspeople.”