A Prayer for the Dead: On the Ground in Blighted Japan

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The specter of a full-blown nuclear disaster loomed over Japan on Tuesday morning after the third reactor explosion in four days occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant just after 6AM. By noon, employees were scrambling to contain a fire in another reactor, and reports were trickling in that radiation had been detected in Tokyo.

And then it started to rain.

For the disaster workers fanned out over the kilometers of wasteland that used to be a coastal neighborhood of Natori, it was hardly a welcome turn of events. Since the twin disasters struck Japan’s east coast on Friday, search and rescue teams from across the nation have been conducting a massive operation amidst a constant barrage of aftershocks and tsunami alerts. As firefighters and soldiers trudged out for a fourth morning into the mountains of debris today, the cold rain falling was yet another complication — and a grim reminder that as the hope of finding survivors fades, the magnitude of this national disaster is just starting to come into focus. After a leak like the one underway in Fukushima, rain can speed up the rate of radioactive material making its way from the atmosphere to the ground.

(Read: Is Fukushima the Next Chernobyl?)

But as residents in areas near the Fukushima plant were warned to stay inside and out of the potentially harmful weather, rescue teams carried on. Yukio Konno, the captain of a local firefighting unit conducting a search in Natori’s worst-struck neighborhood, pulled a small blue radiation detector from the breast pocket of his heavy uniform and looked at the display. It read 0.0 — or zero radiation detected — good news for him and his colleagues. Konno says there were about 100 firefighters from Natori and other parts of the country, including Hiroshima, sifting through the debris. “We had a lot more help before, but they all left after 72 hours,” Konno said. “We don’t expect many survivors.”

Teams like Konno’s have reluctantly stopped listening for calls for help in the rubble, and started looking for bodies. He says that about 1000 people died in this area of Natori, a vast swath of mud and detritus that stretches as far as the eye can see in from north to south, but the final number is still unknown. Other reports say Natori’s death toll is already double that. When Konno’s team finds a corpse, they report it to the police or the Self Defense Force soldiers. Throughout the afternoon, green military trucks patrol up and down the mud-caked streets, ghostly ferries waiting to carry the dead away.

Along one road, a group of SDF soldiers stands over a row of six bodies covered in bright blankets punctuating the gray landscape. Another vehicle pulls up, and the soldiers, wearing blue rubber gloves, carry the body of a young woman out of the truck. When they set her on the ground next to the other corpses, the flowered cloth slips away, exposing her breast. The soldiers who have set her down rush to cover her. One by one, they transfer the corpses with great care onto a plywood board covered in a green army blanket. Before lifting the first body off the ground and into a waiting truck, they pause to say a short prayer.

(See TIME’s exclusive photos of a devastated Japan.)

Four days after the 9.0 earthquake started this chain of events being watched around the world, over 3000 people in Japan have been confirmed dead, and thousands are still missing. As domestic teams fan out, international search and rescue groups have arrived to help from the U.S., South Korea, Australia, Germany, Mexico, New Zealand, China, Hungary, Singapore and the United Kingdom. One of Japan’s own search and rescue teams was still assisting with post-quake efforts in Christchurch, New Zealand, when the earthquake and tsunami struck, according to CNN. Ninety-one nations have offered aid to Japan.

But even with this international outpouring, help is still slow to arrive in many places, including Natori. At an evacuation center in the city’s Masuda Middle School gymnasium, the school principal, who is also serving as the evacuation center coordinator, says he hasn’t seen any foreign aid groups in the area. The city has supplied food and Tokyo has supplied blankets, but other than that, he and the other staff are not getting much help. “The national government is concentrating on the rescue first,” says Kanao Takashi. “It’s just taking a long time.”

In the first hours after the tsunami washed ashore, 500 residents of Natori were staying in the gymnasium. As people have begun to scatter, leaving to stay with family and friends, there are only about 80 left on a scattering of futons and blankets on the wood floor, though local residents who still don’t have food are also coming here to eat. Pastel colored post-its stuck in neat rows onto a whiteboard at the front of center serve as a missing-and-found-persons board. “Ken-chan, your father and mother and brother are safe,” reads one note. “Mori-san, you cannot be reached. Please let me know if you are already. Watanabe,” reads another.

Five days in, the mood at the center is changing, says Takashi. “For the first days, people were just relieved to alive,” he says. But he’s noticed they’re now getting tired of living in a massive communal space, getting less tolerant with each other, and worrying about what comes next. “They’re starting to think about their situation.”

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