Failed phone calls: Reaching Sendai feels futile

Trying to find people in the the tsunami-ravaged areas of Sendai, Japan, is practically impossible if you're not there. Here's Brooke Crothers' brief account.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
2 min read

The search for people in the tsunami-ravaged areas of Sendai, Japan is almost impossible if you're overseas. Here's my brief account.

Let me preface this by saying that I lived in Japan for 10 years. Most of that time was in Tokyo (eight years), but two were in Sendai. And I visited Sendai coastal areas fairly often in the summer when I lived there.

Yamashita is near Yamamoto-cho, which is south of Sendai. In short, ground zero for the Tsunami.
Yamashita is near Yamamoto-cho, which is south of Sendai. In short, ground zero for the Tsunami. Google Maps

But there is one place that is special. An area near the tiny Yamashita train station (see map), not much more than a mile from the Sendai coast, where I spent many happy days with Japanese friends and family.

To give the reader a better sense of its location, it is a little more than 20 miles due south of Sendai in Yamamoto-cho in the Watari district.

To say that it was potentially in the path of the Tsunami is an understatement. It was ground zero.

By sheer coincidence, I was trying to contact someone (Japanese) who lives near Yamashita station--Thursday night my time, Friday Japan time. And by even greater coincidence, I was trying to contact this person just before the earthquake hit. The last communication I received was an e-mail. And it seemed (though I can't confirm this) that the earthquake hit after this person began composing the response. After some small talk, it stops suddenly, then reads (translated from Japanese) as follows: "Just now a giant earthquake hit. Very scary. Everyone running into the street."

That's where the communication ended and that was the last communication I received. I repeatedly called this person's cell phone and sent e-mail. Nothing. (This person is not on Facebook.) I then tried other resources. For example, I called the Miyagi Prefecture police (Sendai is in Miyagi Prefecture). The police officer didn't mince words. Translation: "We know nothing about what happened to residents in that area. We just don't know."

Calls to other facilities, such as the Miyagi Prefecture office and Yamamoto-cho town office have been futile. Either no one answers or the calls just aren't going through (the latter I suspect is the most likely answer).

Meanwhile, I have been scouring the Japanese-language media trying to find any news on this area (it's too small to be of significance to the U.S. media). One of the Japanese-language reports I found was very short--only three sentences--but chilling. It begins by stating that the incident happened as a result of the tsunami and that a "massive piece of debris was carried far inland." It continues. "A three-car freight train at Yamashita station was derailed and overturned. One of the Japan Railway crew in the lead car escaped to safety."

What happened to people near the station is not revealed as the article is only three sentences.

That's not a lot to go on. So, my search continues.