by Gertrude Smith
Is there greater safety in this new year? Yoshido
Kitadai thought so and it wasn't just the pride he felt. Police and fire
fighters may be taken for granted but they live in a world apart from other
citizens. Their life is driven by unique needs, norms and traditions. Even
amidst great tragedy, they are willing to do anything they can to help
others. It clears up the sky and hopefully, there will be a rainbow when
the Black Shadow is gone.
About 5,000 members of the Tokyo Fire Department
displayed their skills at the annual Dezomeshiki (New Year Fire Review)
but it was only well choreographed smoke bombs that brought the pumpers,
ladder trucks and ambulances into action while helicopters hovered overhead,
dropping firemen on the scene and airlifting "victims" from rooftops.
The event dates back to 1629 when a samurai first
equipped retainers with pike poles and hand pumps for fire service around
his castle. In January 1657, Meireki no Taika (the Great Meireki Fire)
destroyed sixty percent of Edo (Tokyo) and resulted in the estimated death
of half the city's population. The disaster prompted the Shogun to organize
50 low-ranking samurai into four brigades to help extinguish fires at each
feudal lord's estate. It was a very dangerous and demanding job but when
they succeeded, the firemen of Edo were highly respected and many became
local leaders and peace officers.
After the Meiji Restoration, they were invited to
demonstrate their techniques on New Year's Day. The performances still
include hashigo-nori (acrobatics atop bamboo ladders) that originated in
the Edo period. Dezomeshiki became the observance of when the brigade goes
back into formation after the holiday celebrations to ensure fire safety
in the coming year.
Now, the world's largest fire department participates
in the parade and exhibitions. One highlight of the 1998 review was a demonstration
by the Hyper (Heavy) Rescue Squad, which made its Dezomeshiki debut the
year before. This unit was created as a result of the 1995 Kobe earthquake.
Their demonstration was quite dramatic, with dynamiting and cranes simulating
a rescue operation. Another feature was the unveiling of the Yuri-kamome
(Black Gull), the world's only helicopter capable of spraying chemicals
horizontally, making it ideal for fighting fires in skyscrapers.
The Tokyo Emergency First Aid Association was also
present, with fukubukuros (lucky bags) of first aid supplies and CPR instructions.
Even now, volunteers still perform fire patrol and prevention, fire fighting,
rescue, paramedical, disaster preparedness and flood control.
The spectacle of it all was also comforting to the
young rookie. He didn't become a Firefighter for the money as no one ever
becomes a millionaire as a civil servant. Still, Firemen can appreciate
something as simple as watching the sun rise - from the roof of a tenement
through clouds of billowing black smoke. There can be great satisfaction
in just helping others - and doing something good for yourself at the same
The fire service is also very family driven as many
members are drawn to it because their fathers and uncles were firemen.
Some of their happiest moments as youngsters were at the firehouse where
the sense of purpose blended into the family unit. They saw their father
doing it and were proud of him; his life was honorable and purposeful.
The loyalty of these men to each other made them seem like additional uncles.
Yoshido Kitadai did not come from a fire fighting
family but the men at his neighborhood station encouraged him to pursue
a career with them. He applied himself, passed the written and physical
agility tests, oral and medical exams. Day in and day out at the Fire Academy
he ran miles, lifted weights and sweated through calisthenics. By Lesson
Four, protective equipment was introduced. Physical fitness was stressed
to be able to work in full turnout gear. With axes, wrenches, extinguishers
and 80 pounds heavier, he could run up and down five flights of stairs
carrying a fire hose. He also ran to classes to learn building codes and
rescue techniques. Finally, as the sun set each day, he drilled and ran
again. The thought that his new "brothers" walked those halls, trained
and studied as he was doing became an inspiration to excel.
Water and Machine and Fireman - the Trinity. To wear
the symbol of Hyper Rescue (the St. Bernard with hook and rope) is what
Yoshido aspired to since the first unit was formed. Now, there were 23
squads of these elite Firemen in Tokyo who are NUMBER ONE. Yoshido would
spend five more months at the Fire Academy learning just his basic skills
and could look forward to additional two week to six month courses to get
his Chauffeur (driver) and Paramedic certifications. The prized Rescue
course was only one month long but very hard. Now he marched in formation
at Dezomeshiki with his classmates behind their Academy banner.
* * *
Tokyo is a megalopolis of some 12 million people.
Buildings are higher above and deeper below ground than ever before, with
underground districts, subway systems and extensive utilities. They don't
call Shinjuku "Tokyo's Manhattan" for nothing with its high-rise hotels,
trading houses, brokerages and real estate companies. Between Shinjuku
Station and the skyscrapers are many stores, including a one-stop electronics
shopping district around the Yodobashi Camera complex.
The Shinjuku Fire Station alone answers about
14,000 calls a year, racing out with ladder trucks and pumpers (the MOTOGI
Squad) to theaters, restaurants, factories and high-rises. The department
is recognized around the world so it is no wonder that visitors from as
far away as Australia and the United States would come by. Lieutenant Takeo
Hayashi and his company take particular pride that Tokyo has small fires,
no doubt due to aggressive prevention efforts.
One day, a vacationing training captain from the central
United States was reviewing the Hyper Rescue Squad's equipment for earthquake
and tornado response. Yoshido was surprised to find the man's young son
peering curiously at the 300 gallon Rabbit mini pumper he was assigned
"That is sure a small engine, sir!" Buddy Edwards
"It is very useful for downtown Tokyo," Yoshi assured
him. "It is well prepared for fires and other emergencies here."
"Yes!" the boy agreed. "I'm seeing everything with
my Dad. He's a fireman, too." Yoshi could see the pride in the boy's face
as he took a step closer. "Can I ask you something?"
"Of course," Yoshi smiled.
"What would you do if a monster showed up?"
"A monster?" Yoshi laughed. "In Tokyo?"
"Yes," Buddy insisted. "Like on TV."
Yoshi had to think. "Oh, I understand. A kaijuu."
Yoshido Kitadai stood proudly before his apparatus. "No fear at all!" He
challenged any lurking monsters to even try and burn his town. Just then,
Captain Edwards and Lieutenant Hayashi came to reclaim the errant lad.
"Nihon no Kokoro," Yoshi nervously explained to his
superior, and to the Americans. "Japanese spirit... Bushido, the samurai
spirit is alive in a fireman's heart..."
"It is!" Captain Edwards assured him. "And my son
has been watching too much ULTRAMAN on TV!" Everyone (except Buddy) laughed
for there is seldom a language barrier when it comes right down to it;
they all PUT THE WET STUFF ON THE RED STUFF. With assurance that he would
watch out for monsters, Buddy made a final round of the station before
heading with his father to the Tokyo Fire Museum.
* * *
Yoshido had been given the nickname "White Cloud"
soon after he arrived at the station as a "probie" who had not fought a
fire outside the training academy. Not only were there no serious incidents,
even the number of car and "little" fires seemed to decrease with his assignment.
Every day, he saw Sergeant Kichiraku's Rescue Squad exercise, drill and
train, climbing up The Wall of the station's back yard. They could carry
twice their weight going up it if they had to.
"Only macho can be the elite," Yoshi's less ambitious
coworkers would kid him. He felt at times that the RAINBOW 5 and Jet Fighter
robots got more respect than the low man on the fire pole probie but they
were all part of the team and that's what counted. For now, he was the
one who cleaned and serviced the apparatus and kept it in readiness, along
with upkeep of the station, refilling water tanks and air packs. The best
part was training courses on fire fighting theory, first aid techniques
and practice. The job involves knowledge as well as tradition, technique
and strength but it is all about "the red devil". Training begins with
Fire Behavior - how fire is created and exists and how this information
is used to work more effectively. Then there is the main event: FIRE. "The
job" becomes a world of flames, noise, heat and organized chaos. When a
rookie steps out of the "smoke house" the first time, the memory of the
flames is visible in his eyes. Their first REAL fire will determine consistency
and bravery under the worst conditions. Even though he had completed the
Academy, Yoshi was not a full-fledged Firefighter yet. He knew he would
have to be extra special in everything he did, in the engine bay or responding
to an alarm.
"I'm going to complete the mission," they tell themselves.
"My brother is the bravest - and I want to be just like my brother. I want
to be the bravest, too."
* * *
The "White Cloud" moniker seemed to be embracing much
of Tokyo the fall evening Yoshi was baptized into the brotherhood of fire
fighting. During dinner, the alarm sounded for a structure fire with people
possibly still inside. There was the momentary sense of disbelief, then
with racing pulse and sweaty hands, he was trying to recall all his training
while getting his gear on. Fumes filled the truck bay as everyone crewed
up and then he was racing to the scene with air horns blaring and sirens
screaming. Lieutenant Hayashi told Yoshi to stay next to him as they pulled
up. Flames were coming out the windows on waves of radiant heat. In the
Fire Academy, they teach you the choreography but now the music starts.
Can you perform with the heat on? At the beginning, you can't because the
fight-or-flee reflex hits and FLEE! will take over. You need to hear, "Don't
worry, you're doing good! Stick with me."
There was no time to ponder why he was going into
that building when everyone was running out. The Lieutenant ordered him
and Ichiro Omori to get a hose line down and stay next to him. The police
officer on scene confirmed that all the occupants had made it out so the
mission shifted from rescue to extinguishment.
The three firefighters were soon surrounded by fire
and intense heat. Yoshi tried to slow his breathing to conserve air as
they continued forward. He opened the bale to knock down the flames but
when the water hit, it turned to steam. He worked the hose as the men outside
opened windows and cut holes in the roof to let the heat and smoke escape.
The fire was brought under control as his air tank was about empty and
a fresh crew relieved them to finish putting the flames out.
Yoshido Kitadai came out the door dirty, wet
and fatigued but he never felt better. The entire company congratulated
him as a brother Firefighter. It filled his heart with a pride that only
a Fireman could appreciate for he had been on the knob of the hose line
and got the glory and recognition of getting the fire under control.
Later, Driver Shinji Tanaka, who had heard about
Yoshi's encounter with the American boy, saw an opportunity for a little
firehouse fun. "You've been accepted for a dangerous job," he solemnly
informed him. "But now we will ALL have to take a two day training course
on kaijuu developed by the JSDF." Yoshi fell for it hook, line and sinker.
When everyone else laughed, he was disappointed that there were no provisions
for such things.
"But if it did happen, our brave Heavy Rescue Squad
could clean up the mess!" Yoshi went back to lining out the bunker gear
with a pleased smile at his witty comeback that drew even louder laughs.
He had gotten his first fire but he knew day-to-day operations would be
less about super heroes and catastrophic situations. He easily settled
into the routine, ready to face his next "big" fire.
* * *
The klaxon blared in the dormitory, instantly
awakening every man from the deepest slumber. A glance at the shaded windows
told Yoshi it was still dark outside. Even before the man closest to the
switch got the lights on, he quickly slid feet into coverall and then,
jump boots. This "day shift" would not be starting like most, he figured.
As the last of the squad descended the stairs, the quick single note of
the alarm changed to "District Call", signaling a situation so large that
help was needed from more than just one of the ten Fire Districts. The
public warning system was also directing area residents to orderly evacuate
or proceed to their designated shelters. Little did anyone realize that
they would be dealing with one of the most tragic days in Tokyo history.
"Is this really happening?" everyone silently
wondered as they donned their turnout gear and crewed up in front of their
Battalion Chief Tetsua Yamamoto, Captain "Mack"
Tanaka and Lieutenant Hayashi stood before them, looking at a map
of Tokyo. The District Commander then addressed his men.
"Gojira is advancing, leaving a trail of destruction.
A visiting U.S. destroyer valiantly tried to defend the harbor but even
its weapons were no match for the monster. Gojira's atomic breath blasted
forth, destroying the ship and a large part of the harbor area. The Police
Water Rescue Unit has been deployed to assist the fire boats. Aviation
Unit helicopters are relaying information on the creature's location and
activities. Tokyo Harbor is burning and the department will do everything
it can to contain the damage, but we must do it sensibly, and without unnecessary
Firefighters are supposed to react quickly but this
was crazy, Yoshido thought as they all stood in the bay, listening
to the frantic spotters' radio traffic over the station intercom. When
will we get started?
"We have to keep the living alive," the Chief finally
continued. "There are many people there but we also do not know where Gojira
will strike next. This is a very dangerous situation, like an earthquake
or a typhoon. It appears that nothing can stop Gojira but we must not let
him stop us!" He approached Sergeant Kichiraku. "You will leave the firehouse
with 23 men. You want to return with 23 men. That is a promise to each
other that you live by. Your courage and compassion started before Gojira
attacked and will have to endure during the long, sad days that will surely
follow." He paused to look each person assembled before him in the eye.
"All of you can be proud to be Firemen in Division 4, the best in Tokyo!"
After 21 years of fighting some of the worst fires,
including a blaze that almost killed him, there was no doubt of Chief Yamamoto's
dedication and bravery. A child was feared trapped in a large fire and
without hesitation, he and two others did what firemen do: they ran into
the flames to save someone. While inside, the floor collapsed without warning
and trapped them. One of the firemen died at the scene and another enroute
to the hospital as Yamamoto comforted the EMTs and urged them on. They
were shocked at what had happened but his zeal was not quashed by the incredible
pain he suffered from burns over 30 percent of his body. Many days later,
everyone thought he would never walk again for when the doctors first attempted
to get him back on his feet, he fainted from the pain. Two months later,
he limped out of the hospital to a hero's welcome and returned to work
soon after. Though he could have retired, Tetsua Yamamoto did not because
the people of Tokyo faced danger even without Gojira.
* * *
The giant creature had followed the Toei/O-Edo
Line from Shinjuku to Tocho-mae Station, leaving a trail of destruction.
Autos, trains and buildings burned and exploded but Gojira was not even
deterred by the Metropolitan Government complex. City Hall, with its twin
towers above the 33rd floor and observation decks and restaurants on their
45th floors, had replaced Tokyo Tower as the city's vantage point to view
Yokohama and Mt. Fuji. Its lattice facade reminded one of silicon microchips
and at the top were satellite dishes that enabled the government to keep
in touch with its many entities.
With a mighty roar, Gojira confronted the towering
structure and lashed out at these pretenders to his power. The North Tower's
upper 12 stories exploded in a shower of glass, granite and steel when
he unleashed his atomic ray. Turning from the smoking ruin, he embraced
the 52 story Sumitomo Building in his claws as if to lift it from its very
roots. The steel structure buckled and twisted into the hollow center core.
The Keio Plaza Hotel's reception area received the brunt of his viciously
lashing tail as the Assembly Building roof was clawed to shreds. The hotel
had been the first of the "skyscrapers" with its two towers.
Across the street stood the Park Tower of offices
and Tokyo Gas. An express elevator to the 41st Floor leads to the opulent
Hyatt Hotel and from the 52nd Floor's New York Grill, one could see from
Mt. Fuji to Tokyo Bay on a clear day.
Hemmed in to the north, the monster stomped toward
a rapidly departing Toei train. It escaped Gojira's radioactive blast but
hit a dump truck that had fallen onto the track from the Shuto Expressway.
The truck had been rear-ended by a bus evacuating guests from the Washington
Hotel. The train's driver could not stop and plowed into the truck, shoving
it into the next tunnel and derailing as the truck's fuel tank exploded.
With smoke pouring from the subway tunnel, Gojira continued on his way.
"Quick Attacker" firefighters from the Yotsuya Station
had gone by motorcycle to assess the situation at the Shinjuku terminal.
The Ushigome Division escaped the rampage and was heading for the hard
hit central area when an aerial ladder truck attracted Gojira's attention
with its flashing lights, siren and air horn. It was easily picked up by
the creature's massive claws and hurled into the Bunka Fashion College.
Fortunately, the staff and student body had been evacuated as the truck
exploded on impact. The Command Center wisely ordered all units to avoid
using their warning devices in Gojira's presence.
It was war now as fires were raging in many
areas and in wartime, there are casualties, mental strains and breakdowns.
There are also heroes as Captain Tanaka, Lieutenant Hayashi and Sergeant
Kichiraku led their units toward the stricken area that was the heart of
Shinjuku, if not Japan itself.
"Stay low, stay loose and keep moving," Hayashi
reminded everyone as they prepared to enter City Hall. The upper floors
of the North Tower were their main concern but signs of the tragedy greeted
them in the lobby as police and building fire marshals tried to deal with
the many injured. A tremendous sadness struck Yoshido that he had never
felt before. At first, it scared him, even as the Paramedics quickly made
their rounds to assess the injured. He didn't know why because the Lieutenant
had radioed for the giant Medical Emergency Response Vehicle (the Super
Ambulance) to provide treatment for even the most critically injured until
more ambulances could be arranged.
The elevators had shut down and people were still
descending from the upper floors, many soaked from the automatic sprinkler
system and exhausted from their trek. There was no shouting or pushing,
just a sense of great sadness. Lieutenant Hayashi had a set of the building's
construction details and frowned at the flames and thick black smoke coming
from the remains of the damaged tower. His squad would check the accessible
floors and assist anyone who was trapped or needed help getting down.
As they proceeded upward, they saw reminders of Gojira's
visit: hairline cracks in first the outer wall and then toward the interior.
By the time they reached the 30th Floor, there were chunks of concrete
on the stairs from the levels above and everyone climbed more slowly and
quietly. It was rather frightening until they forced an exit door open,
only to gaze upon a sea of glass, singed paper and bodies sprawled against
the wall. The force of the oral blast had incinerated everything in the
offices and blown the remains into the hallway. They could hear pieces
of the building breaking off and crashing on the portico far below. Still,
they continued upward, hugging the inner wall of the stairwell, hoping
the building wouldn't collapse with them in it. The long climb ended abruptly
at the 34th Floor where the stairwell and much of the North Tower had been
cauterized by the heat of Gojira's ray. There was nothing they could do
except advise the command post in the lobby how many victims had been noted
on each floor.
As they plodded back down the stairs, a more
chaotic scene was unfolding at the Sumitomo Building. Flames and smoke
were coming from its middle where Gojira had weakened the "shell" of the
skyscraper. LESSON TEN, Yoshido thought. Principles of ventilation. Building
construction, fire behavior and phenomena such as the dreaded backdraft.
Captain Tanaka also remembered his lessons well. With breaks in the outer
walls, a venturi effect fanned the electrical fires that had broken out.
People who had not (or could not) make their escape downward had fled up
to the restaurant on the top floor and were now trapped. He called for
a White Swan (hakuchou) fire fighting helicopter and any available long
distance pumper as even their HINO Squirt's boom nozzle wouldn't reach
the fire raging on the 20th Floor. The Captain had been observing the structure
through binoculars as his men advanced. Now the building seemed to be melting
as he watched.
As they left City Hall, the heat blew out windows
above the fire. Lieutenant Hayashi put out a May Day for airlift of those
trapped above the fire. Amid showering glass, they dashed for the foyer
to make sure anyone who had managed to get down would be attended to. A
huge chunk of concrete crashed down in front of the entrance as Captain
Tanaka radioed them to evacuate immediately. What they couldn't see from
their location was the upper stories folding inward. With a terrible roar,
the Sumitomo Building began to collapse. They dropped their gear and ran
before a tremendous cloud of smoke, ash and debris pushing outwards as
the ground below their feet vibrated with the compaction. It passed under
the multi-story portico which joined the buildings together as they huddled
along the inside wall of the courtyard with a rain of concrete bouncing
off their helmets and bodies. Dust soon filled this oasis as they gasped
for air through fireproof hoods hastily pulled over mouth and nose. The
noise of the collapse was intense, then, strangely quiet. On hands and
knees, figures crawled along the wall as the darkness began to diminish
and familiar outlines appear. Peering through the haze were flashlights.
Communications started coming over the radio, inquiring about the Sumitomo
"The building is down," a helicopter pilot advised.
The squad made its way through the settling dust, pushed down by the wash
of the chopper hovering above. Across the way, the building had compacted
into a smoldering mound of concrete, cable and glass.
A weak shout for help came from above. The firemen
looked at each other in disbelief before springing into action and maneuvering
around and over the debris. At least one of the people that had been trapped
on the roof had apparently survived, riding the collapse downward over
40 floors! As they made their ascent, the helicopter swooped in to confirm
Omori's excited report of possible survivors. A bedraggled businessman
peered over the edge of a concrete slab before collapsing. Debris continued
falling and shifting as the survivors' injuries were assessed and moved
to the larger, most level slabs of roof toward the center of the pile.
Fearing for everyone's safety on the unstable wreckage, Lieutenant Hayashi
urged the chopper to hurry.
When the injured had been transported to a hospital,
the weary firemen took a brief rest on the back of a truck. Staring at
the remains of what used to be one of the tallest buildings in Japan, Ichiro
Omori could not believe the miracle of life that had greeted them.
"Yoshi, do you think some people lead a charmed life?"
"Hai, I do," his equally amazed partner agreed. "Let's
hope that such luck is with us also."
* * *
The squad then moved over to the Keio Plaza Hotel
where injuries were minimal but people were still in the ruined reception
area, either waiting for assurance that the hotel was safe or wondering
how to get out of town. The building had been rocked, with furniture sliding
about the rooms. Plaster was all over the floor and stairs but there appeared
to be little major damage. The Shinjuku Fire Station could now deploy its
resources elsewhere and as they moved eastward, everyone was stunned by
the destruction. Leveled or badly damaged buildings were all about them.
Seismic resistive cisterns and underground water tanks
below many new buildings in preparation for earthquakes proved invaluable
but broken mains resulting from the massive Gojira's advance made water
unavailable to fight many fires. Trucks had to back down when their tankers
went dry, yet thousands of homes and restaurants burned as ranges were
left unattended in the rush to evacuate or supplied with debris and toppling
contents. Flammable materials in businesses and explosions of gas lines
fueled the conflagration at such a rate that firefighters could not keep
up with it all. Bulldozers and tractor shovels with buckets and forks could
only move in when the fires were out and the Super Pumpers and foam trucks
had departed for their next challenge. To have so many fires to deal with
was incredible! Yoshido tried to come up with some scope for what lay before
them but couldn't.
Mass chaos close-up either brings on a sense of futility
or resolve, hoping that more people made it out than might be trapped somewhere,
in danger, pain or terror, praying for rescue or the peaceful release of
death. Additional emergency workers and firefighters would soon be coming
from all directions but it would be many hours before everyone could even
be minimally accommodated. What pumpers that had water attacked the burning
buildings as police, fire marshals, medics and citizens assisted the injured
the best they could. Hydraulic Jaws of Life and generator powered cutting
tools extricated people trapped in crumbled vehicles as an elderly man
in an old style fire coat stood before a blazing building.
"No, don't go in there, don't do that!" Shinji Tanaka
shouted as he braked hard and his crew mates jumped off their truck. No
doubt the retired fireman would try to go in as he had years ago, running
through fire to make a rescue. Firemen sometimes are too brave for their
own good but he saluted Shinji and his colleagues and took a safe position
out of their way as the next generation took over. When they had put the
fire out, Yoshi was tremendously relieved to see the pride in the old man's
face as the Heavy Rescue Squad made its way through the wreckage.
* * *
An estimated two million people pass through the Shinjuku
train station daily, making it one of the busiest in the world. There are
three train systems, 13 subway lines, private lines and Japan Railways.
Thousands had narrowly escaped from the terminal and with train and subway
lines damaged, they were now making their way on foot. It would take an
extraordinary effort to find and reach anyone who was still alive and trapped
in this area. The yatai (food stalls) had not had a chance to fold their
curtained 'interiors' and wheel their carts out of the way of the stampede
of commuters. Many burned as a result of their cooking fires.
As medics made their way along the subway lines, they
realized that even the most modern first aid techniques could not handle
the sheer number of injured. There was also a large fire by the west exit
that had been shelter to about 200 homeless who lived in cardboard boxes
in the underground section. When the bubble of the '80s burst, less productive
salarymen were cut loose and without any social safety net, ended up on
the street. Their "homes" had also ignited from trampled cooking fires
during the panic of Gojira's attack. Several people were now dead and others
critically burned as the fire spread to 600 square meters before it was
brought under control.
"Maybe this will make the government do something
for these people's plight," Yoshi hoped as they prepared to tackle a four
story blaze in the top of the massive Takashimaya Times Square complex
straddling the tracks at the end of a once moving walkway. The largest
department store in Japan also offered entertainment, over 30 restaurants
and housed a branch of Tokyu Hands (a popular arts and crafts and do-it-yourself
store) and a Kinokuniya Bookstore annex. The top three floors included
a full sized IMAX Theater; Virgin Megastore for music, cafes and an amusement
park. Two other large department stores flanked each side of the plaza
and the basement floors had more restaurants.
Shinagawa and Azabu Fire Stations were already on
scene and were glad to receive relief from the 4th District. Entry, search,
extrication, rescue, control and extinguish fires lay before them, often
in heat so intense it was hard to breathe as the air itself burned when
tons of merchandise were consumed. Even extensive fire protection wasn't
much help where Gojira had chosen to breathe his atomic flame. The advance
continued, often into smoke so thick they couldn't see their hands in front
of their faces. Breaking through a collapsed section of the Mycity Department
Store, three firefighters from the Ebara station were caught in a flashover
when everything on the 7th Floor became so hot it produced a 1,500 degree
fireball. The department had to draw more water from the lake at Shinjuku
Gyoen National Garden to deal with the conflagration. Its peaceful, landscaped
walks, flowers, cherry trees and chrysanthemums provided a sharp contrast
to the rumbling, massive tankers.
The area around the east side of the station
had been brightly colored and loud, with a two story television blaring
news, sports and advertisements. Isetan, one of Tokyo's greatest department
stores, was nearby. After the tragedy at Mycity, Lieutenant Hayashi told
his company not to bring the hose roll-ups, just air. Yoshi thought this
was very odd because they wouldn't be able to attack the fires.
"This is now a rescue operation but be careful going
in. Firemen have already been killed," he advised. Yoshi wondered just
what they were getting into. He also started to get scared, looking up
as they walked along. His sense of hearing seemed to become more acute
as they searched the lower floors of the huge store. He thought he heard
a faint roar, like water was in his ears. Then, the floor beneath their
feet seemed to shudder, as if a trembler had passed below them. Suddenly,
everyone just started running.
"Let's go! Run, get out of here!" Lieutenant Hayashi
shouted. On the concourse, civilians, firemen, police, news crews and medics
were all trying to flee. Some dove down subway entrances, under push carts
and display stands. In seconds, debris was coming down and everything went
black with dust and smoke. Those in front of the building were knocked
to the ground but Yoshi kept his eye on where he was heading: a subway
exit up ahead and to the right.
"That's my goal, that's where I'm going to get
to," he told himself, now crawling as fast as he could. The noise was incredible,
like a train was running along behind him. He curled into a ball behind
the stairs and waited to die as the noise and vibrations shook his body.
When it got difficult to breathe, he donned his mask, only to find that
it was full of debris. He purged it and felt other people pawing at him.
A police officer and train driver had also sought refuge under the stairway.
Someone in the distance was yelling. "You are not
trapped. Come this way. You are not trapped." The three of them began crawling
over rubble and around chunks of concrete. Feeling a railing, Yoshi realized
he was in the subway but it was dark as night and he couldn't see anything.
He called out to any other firemen in the area. A sergeant appeared, running
along the platform with a flashlight.
"Where are the rest of your men?" he asked.
"I do not know," Yoshi told him. "We were upstairs
when something came down. I think it was Times Square. We were separated."
When you take this job, you know that you're taking
risks, but they don't seem real. Now, he didn't know what had become of
the people he was supposed to be working with. He didn't know how to deal
with this but he and the sergeant from a Shinagawa branch station still
had others to take care of. With the policeman and subway worker, they
decided to make their way back upstairs. When he saw the department store,
Yoshi couldn't recognize any merchandise or fixtures. Concrete pieces were
no bigger than a basketball but dust was everywhere. Two explosions of
volatile paints, thinners and propane in the Tokyu Hands basement had blown
out the building's supports and the top half had fallen toward the west,
over the JR Yamanote/Odakyu and Chuo Lines. It was like seeing Pompeii
after Mount Vesuvius had erupted, but in a long, low shadow box of devastation.
Massive girders were broken off in pieces, protruding from the rubble.
What remained of the foundation was so compacted into the basement levels,
the building was not much taller than the roof of the main terminal. They
walked along steel beams, not realizing there were voids below until a
dusty firefighter climbed up behind them. Shinji Tanaka scared the wits
out of Yoshido, appearing like a ghost.
"Where is Lieutenant Hayashi?" Yoshi demanded, shaking
"He was right beside me..." Shinji looked about, as
if trying to find someone he had lost in a crowd. Yoshi crawled along the
path his coworker had come, calling down every depression he came to. As
he scrambled about, he thought he heard something. Again he called and
was able to locate a labored moan.
"Quick!" Yoshi told his companions. "We must dig.
And fast!" They didn't have anything to work with except their hands but
attacked the void like badgers. Three feet down, they broke through to
the cavity Hayashi was trapped in, with a beam across his chest. Sergeant
Ito radioed a May Day but no Special Rescue teams were available. The three
of them would have to enter the confined space, but not in the controlled,
slow and safe as possible exercises they had done in training scenarios.
The Lieutenant was badly injured and they had to get him out alive. Being
the smallest in stature, Yoshi wormed head first down the hole. He was
able to dig around Hayashi's air tank and get it off. When he eased him
into a prone position, the officer cried out in pain.
"It's my hip, I think," Hayashi gasped. Carefully
rolling onto his uninjured side, he tried to pull himself by his elbows
but his ribs had been struck by the beam that had pinned him. Without a
proper stretcher, the able bodied set about finding steel and wood pieces
to make a frame and improvised with their turnout coats. The extrication
was successful with a minimum of discomfort to the injured lieutenant as
they got him back to the subway tunnel.
"Maybe someone can pinpoint our location and reach
us," Yoshi suggested. It was quiet for a long time after they radioed their
position, wondering if the signal could penetrate the masses of concrete.
Then, the familiar sound of big diesel engines was heard and soon, a 20
ton crane truck's drill bored through the wall on the opposite side of
the track, bringing natural light to what had been the east side of Shinjuku
Station, which was now mostly at their feet.
Shinji and Yoshi didn't dwell on how lucky they were
to have survived their ordeal but were anxious to rejoin the rest of their
company. Sergeant Kichiraku pulled out his clipboard and checked off theirs
and the lieutenant's names. He also asked for Yoshi's riding list which
had the name of everybody he was working with on that tour, the most important
documentation on a fireman's job. Takahasi and Suzuki from their ladder
truck had managed to get out the north end along the subway tracks and
had been deployed with their apparatus to the Yoyogi Station. "We had you
three listed as missing, presumed - uh - we thought you were dead," Kichiraku
"No, I'm here. It's me. And Shinji and Lieutenant
Hayashi," he proudly added. When he glanced to the west, his elation was
dampened by what he saw. Even the Tokyo skyline had been changed by Gojira.
The devastation and destruction was massive but he was not impressed. All
he thought about was helping the best he could, using all the abilities
he and his colleagues possessed. It helped him believe that others still
trapped had a chance for survival.
* * *
Over twice the number of firefighters available
could have been put to work in the terminal buildings alone but the ones
that were there did more than would be thought possible. There had been
many travelers in the station and nobody really knew how many of the train
and shop attendants had successfully evacuated so the search continued.
There were reports of people who had been killed but the main task was
to get to those who were still alive. Changing locations time after time
and taking advantage of the remaining daylight, they worked feverishly.
Yoshi and Shinji began a live extrication that took three teams the entire
evening, working to get a railroad maintenance worker out of a crushed
subway car in a collapsed tunnel.
To be a rescuer and have to recover your own takes
a lot of heart because if a brother is in trouble, it is often serious.
Life safety alarms (PASS) made the recovery of the three Ebara firefighters
as quick as possible when the area was finally cooled down. They were brought
out on ladders, along with the bodies of two children. Their mother had
been able to save her 4-year-old son when other firefighters rushed them
from the building. Firemen saluted or removed their helmets at the heart-wrenching
scene that was beyond the scope of Yoshi's experience. As bad as he felt
as a Firefighter, he realized he could still do something because people
were being found alive and it proved to everyone there could be others.
* * *
For disaster response workers, time becomes
a blur, dulling any sense of just how overwhelming the situation is. Around
midnight, the men just couldn't work anymore, being mentally and physically
exhausted by their efforts. With thousands of other Tokyo residents, they
camped outdoors in the darkened city, often glancing at the glow of distant
fires as they took advantage of Volunteer Corps and Red Cross offerings
of hot meals and cots. Noisy equipment and helicopters continued their
toil as small Jet Fighter robots were sent into the subway tunnels. Lighting
wagons blazed into the night long after candles and wood fires had been
When Yoshi and the men of the Shinjuku Fire
Station awoke at daybreak, they found a memorial had been set up at the
train station and flowers placed on parked fire trucks and by the relief
tents. Some were tied with police tape to a twisted street sign. A Buddhist
priest was jingling a bell by the West Exit area, his face serene under
his wicker hat.
Progress got slower and the elite units had to handle
most of the collapses that hadn't been "cleared". Every building and subway
had to be checked as people were still unaccounted for. Teams of two crawled
on their bellies into voids with night scopes, thermal imaging cameras
and sound detection systems to pick up the faintest traces of life among
the debris. In areas too small and compacted to permit immediate access,
television imaging probes and life search systems using electromagnetic
waves were used to search for survivors. Soon, it was just luck that somebody
was found alive and what rescues were made became more difficult. Picks,
shovels and buckets were put aside when leads to where people might be
trapped dried up.
Refugees numbered close to one hundred thousand; women
carrying babies, men and children with bedding or clothing, pushing a rickshaw
or other contrivance loaded with household effects, often their entire
belongings. Thousands were left homeless. Deaths were estimated at nearly
10,000, with an additional 4,000 residents still missing, despite the police
koban records of who lived where.
The sick and dying or dead from Gojira's radiation
were together in groups waiting for the end, separate from the more physically
traumatized. A 10 ton water tanker can provide drinking water but food
would soon run out and have to be brought in from Yokohama. Tokyo Harbor
filled with ships bearing supplies and recovery teams from around the world
while foreigners were directed to their respective embassies to arrange
transportation home if they did not have a "contributory reason" to remain
in Tokyo. Public communications by telephone would probably not be possible
for at least a week. The military would also be arriving in full force
to maintain peace and order.
* * *
When all was said and done, more than 25,000 people
were directly served by the Tokyo Fire Department alone. Civilians also
joined the recovery effort, helping neighbors and complete strangers. Houses
and shops served as makeshift infirmaries to treat the many injured. While
the overall effort was brave and aggressive, it was also plagued by communications
problems, lapses and a lack of coordination among agencies and departments.
Calls to the Command and Control Center were not acknowledged as the firefighters'
radios weren't reaching from locations distant from the headquarters and
through concrete structures. It was determined new ones that could penetrate
high-rise buildings would be necessary for future operations, as well as
generator powered repeaters to boost their signals. The Metropolitan Police
Department's fully equipped Mobile Rescue Units, specializing in train
derailments, traffic accidents, fires and explosions were held back and
under-utilized while their Ranger Units came in from the mountain regions
to relieve the overworked Wide Area support teams.
But beyond the statistics, debriefings, analysis and
emblems lie emotions which cannot be so handily addressed. Firefighters
confront death, guilt, deification, disillusionment, fear, tourists and
numbness, yet they still go out each day to do their jobs, often tired
and overwhelmed. They have their own pain and even get in scuffles with
police and government officials on occasion. Some residents would sue the
city, contending negligence and endangering their health during rescue
operations or thought their property was intentionally ruined because they
don't understand what sometimes has to be done to stop a fire from spreading.
Though businessmen and janitors died, it is often in the face of firefighters
that tragedy is most deeply etched.
The job seemed different to Yoshido Kitadai now; it
was more like fighting a monster than fighting fires. Some of his fellow
firefighters felt guilt and had nightmares about what they had seen.
"It's not the same," he confided to Lieutenant Hayashi
when he visited him in the hospital while on break two weeks later. "It's
not exciting anymore." The news coverage reminded him of deeper wounds
than Gojira had inflicted on the landscape. His anguish revived when young
boys came by the fire station and shyly watched the men try to perform
daily routines. He felt like he just wanted to be left alone.
"But that's their way," Hayashi reminded him. "As
a Fireman, you are the one that asks, 'How are YOU?' I think many children
have a profound sadness about what happened and look to their heroes for
assurance that everything will be all right."
"Can heroes feel bad?" Yoshi asked. "Can they grieve?
Have we put ourselves on a pedestal that we are afraid to get off?"
"You haven't, Yoshido. But you can't go through life
just being a survivor," the officer advised. "You've got to do other things.
The city officials and our department's own leaders are assessing where
Tokyo now stands and how best to rebuild and improve it, from an overhaul
of top management to ordering more ambulances and replacing overtaxed infrastructure.
The Fire Department lost 20 members that terrible day and could have used
five additional Heavy Rescue units. New Fire Academy recruits will be training
in classes double the normal size to replace those who will leave because
of emotional or physical problems. For those left on the job, it will not
be over because experience is key in fighting fires. Probies do not have
"It has not been a year since I myself entered the
Academy," Yoshi reminded him, suddenly realizing that in the blur of time
following Gojira's attack, he couldn't remember the exact date he had signed
his admittance papers.
"Probie or not, Yoshido, you have had more experiences
in two weeks than many firefighters get in their entire careers. That is
why I have nominated you for the Hyper Rescue Squad."
Yoshi was speechless, yet very pleased. "Now you don't
want to fall off," Hayashi laughed. "Your training will be very hard so
I will make sure Sergeant Kichiraku prepares you for it. How about first
thing tomorrow morning? It is time for you to move on but before you do,
visit the memorial in front of the Ebara Fire Station. Those heroes didn't
lose their lives … they gave them. There is a very thin line between courage
and courage beyond the call of duty. Firefighters have clear and unburdened
hearts which permit them to genuinely care about people but sometimes,
the burning monster will break your heart,” he continued. “Real heroes
are born, not made and we best honor these brave men when we pledge that
their example will never die. We make a deal with our lives when we go
into burning buildings and the people we serve appreciate it.” He gestured
at the rows of flowers and cards about his hospital room. "A teacher who
came by said she was going to have her students write an essay on what
it means to be a hero," he bowed his head at the thought. "She said she
was very scared when she had to evacuate but saw a fire company go by and
knew someone was there to help those that needed it.”
"I am sure her students will get the history right,"
Yoshi assured his boss on one of the proudest days in his lifetime.
* * *
Purple and black bunting - reserved for fallen
heroes - hung over the garage door of the Ebara Fire Station. Thousands
of people in the neighborhood had brought flowers, candles, cards, prayers,
poems and letters. They signed books of condolences and waited patiently
to spot a firefighter - any firefighter so they could say, "Thank you.''
Inside, the firefighters were everybody's hero but sat around a massive
table, donated years ago. In the center was a painted skyline of Tokyo
- the old skyline, not dominated by gleaming skyscrapers. Memorial cards
were on it, along with tea cups and soda cans and bits of everyday life.
They were looking at photographs and reminiscing about the past. What can
I say, Yoshido wondered. How do you find words to comfort? He remembered
reading Thornton Wilder's novel, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey'' in which
five people die when a bridge collapses and a monk sets out to find meaning
in the accident. Why those people, the monk wonders. Why not me? He concludes
there is no meaning in such random death and that life and death are determined
by chance. Yoshi reminded his grieving brothers that the bridge between
life and death is love. While there is no meaning in death, there is a
deep, enduring meaning in the way one lives and in the way they are loved
Everyone had a story to tell about the absent firefighters,
from fixing the roof at the school or a boiler that went out in the middle
"They were the first ones there to help. It is our
nature. You didn't have to ask.”
"Tuck was the junior Kendo coach at the high school
and a volunteer coach for the middle school's baseball team." A shift sergeant
picked up a tournament picture with Shozo Tsuchiya in his baseball uniform.
“He never took credit for wins, but he was always the first one to congratulate
the players after a game. He was somebody who made you want to try harder.”
"They would do anything for anybody,” one man summed
up their fallen comrades.
At the city-wide memorial the previous Sunday, citizens
had placed flowers on the trucks assembled outside the station. Televised
images spoke to the world at large - mountains of flowers outside firehouse
doors everywhere, a sea of white-gloved officers standing at attention.
But at the station was where the blackened bunker gear and photographs
tacked to corkboards were. The men's presence lingered in other ways; Tsuchiya's
spare fire coat hanging on a hook at the back of the station. The roster
board, untouched with the list of the men's riding positions that day.
The young son of Noboru Ishimori came by with his mother and related how
he often begged his dad to take him to fires when he was little and listened
to fire calls on his own scanner. Masaki Morobosh followed a rich family
tradition of 200 years of fire fighting. His family members and friends
told their tales and shared their grief.
“Anything he did in his life he did with true dedication,
with true spirit,” Masaki's grandfather declared.
Yoshi had been through so much and had to face a great
loss of life at a very early stage in his career. The loss of comrades
fighting a fire was also a first for the Ebara Station and practically
"Have great pride," the Ebara captain told him. "But
be very careful, be safe and keep showing us by example to inspire others.
We will miss our brothers but they will always be in our hearts. They will
be with you in spirit, I know."
* * *
In the same spirit as the men who gave their lives
trying to save others, firefighters refuse to give up searching for answers
to how they can do their job more effectively and safely. "That is how
heroes should be remembered,” Sergeant Kichiraku began his morning briefing.
Everybody present had a story to tell and were soon
discussing what could have been done differently. But they weren't THERE,
Yoshido thought to himself. As if reading his mind, the Sergeant continued.
"We did what we would do in any situation and will
do it again if need be. We will go to the scene because we are needed.
We have lost twenty family members but I will go to work because I love
what we do. I love the people that we help. I have never met a Tokyo fireman
- or any fireman - that doesn't love what he does. People say, 'Your job
is unbelievable. It is more than anyone in the world should ever have to
deal with.' They are right. We get our strength from each other, from the
men with years on the job, the ones that have been there, to the fires.
The department is going to go on, passing on our experiences to those that
come after us. Important lessons can be learned by everyone of us. Extensive
notes were made of what was destroyed and what survived. Reconstruction
will be directed toward even greater fire safety and disaster preparedness.
Building owners and shop keepers will need to reevaluate the strength of
their structures as it pertains to ANY possible emergency. The Emperor's
liaison will also be inspecting the devastation. Construction sites in
Tokyo are the neatest in the world but also the most beautiful. Great attention
is paid to make the sites safe and presentable with hoardings that often
display photographic prints. They will add life and color to the city while
it returns from the ashes. The Army Corps of Engineers will also assist.
"From our most junior to our most senior squad members,
you have shown courage, dedication, compassion and humility in the most
trying of times. I am fortunate to work with you through these most difficult
days." Sergeant Kichiraku then formally introduced Yoshido to his squad
and repeated the opening remark he made whenever a new member joined the
Hyper Rescue Squad, which also applied to any successful endeavor.
"The essentials of fire fighting stress the need for
safety in all aspects of emergency service. This is where attitude, training
and awareness come into play. Now let's hit The Wall!"