At 05:46 Local, Tuesday 17th January [20:46 Monday 16th GMT] an Earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale struck the city of Kobe and the surrounding area. An offer of assistance from IRC was made immediately (within 30 minutes of the ‘quake) via IRC’s Administration Office to the British Embassy in Tokyo.
On Saturday morning, 21st January, IRC was requested by the Japanese Government to attend via the ODA (Overseas Development Agency). The Corps was immediately put on standby and availability of operational members was requested.
A direct flight with British Airways was arranged for Sunday morning 22nd January, departing Heathrow 11:30 GMT.
A team of 12 from International Rescue Corps plus two interpreters, who were originally from the Kobe area but now lived in Sheffield, UK(!), were mobilised to Glory Mill – IRC’s Headquarters – for 06:30 GMT Sunday 22nd January. Equipment was checked and the team was briefed.
The team departed Glory Mill at 08:45GMT for Heathrow for the flight to Osaka, the nearest airport to the disaster. During the flight the team was briefed further on the affected areas, culture, language, population etc. by the interpreters.
On arrival at Osaka airport, the team was met by an embassy and customs official who moved us swiftly through the airport. The team was taken on a coach to the ferry terminal and onward across Kobe Bay, 35 minutes by SeaCat.
The team arrived at approximately 10:35 local time, 23rd January to be met by Mr. David Cockerham and his wife Mim from the British Consulate and arrangements had been made for us to use transport (1 pick-up and 1 small coach) supplied by an organisation called Tenrikyo.
The team moved away from the city centre and deployed to the JR railway station in the Higashi-Nada prefecture after Mr. Cockerham heard on the radio that searches were being carried out.
A building comprising of flats was being searched by the fire service and a Japanese rescue team. An offer of help was made, but rejected, although after more consultation we finally received permission to help on the site using our fibre-optic probe to search a void that the Japanese were trying to break in to. This search was carried out professionally and gave us the opportunity to show our specialist equipment at work, to the authorities.
As time was now pressing before darkness fell, we decided to move to the Kobe club north of the city centre to establish a base camp.
The team arrived at the Kobe club at approximately 18:10 and met Mr. Paul Wohrle, the director, who offered the team several floor areas as no grass was available to pitch camp.
We chose a single storey bar area with double doors at either end for ease of escape in case of aftershocks!
A small patio area was also available on which we established cooking facilities and satellite communications to the UK – and this was to be our base for the duration.
Mr. Worhle informed the team that he had heard of a six-storey hotel within walking distance that had collapsed and it was believed that people may be missing. A team was dispatched at approximately 19:30 to recce the outside of the building and gather information. We informed the Prefects office to tell them what we were doing. Two Trapped Person Locator (TPL) teams, one fibre-optic team and a search dog spent almost two hours searching and clearing this building, during which there were several strong aftershocks.
During the search of the hotel an English teacher who had heard that we were in the area asked us to search students’ residences behind St. Michael’s school. This gentleman was very distressed that some of his students were still missing and that only a quick search had previously been carried out. The school consisted of three, three-storey wooden farm buildings ‘pancaked’ to first floor level.
Several hours were spent searching this site along with the search dog – with one body being located. All team members were back in base camp by 00:20.
A team briefing was held at 00:40 after which we were asked by a local to search a 2 storey collapsed building 10 minutes walk away. A six man team was dispatched at 01:06 with all team members back in camp by 02:15 with the building cleared.
The team, plus dog, were ready to move out at 06:30, 24th January and Mr. Aota met with Willie and me to sort out areas and sites. With the help of Mr. Mishsda from the Prefect’s office, two areas were established. Team One – Three IRC members plus an interpreter, went with the fire service to their HQ in Suma district and Team Two – Ten plus dog and interpreter went to the police HQ, Hyogo district. Both teams moved out at approximately 08:00 under fire service escort.
After a meeting with the Chief of Police in a tent – the police station having lost its ground floor – the team was taken to an apartment block of five floors with one person missing.
Paul Wooster (Section Leader) and I carried out a recce of the building which had been gutted by fire, with only one area in the bottom of the stairwell having escaped the blaze. We located what we believed to be another set of stairs amongst the tangle of concrete which indicated either a basement or another room. After talking with the police who informed us that there is no basement, the section leader re-entered the building and after removing more rubble, a small entry was made in to a basement area, of which a thorough search was then made.
Back at the co-ordination centre we waited for allocation of the next site and met up with Team One who had only one building to search in the area of Suma, which was now declared clear.
The team, now back at full strength, searched two more sites in the area of Hyogo before being told by the co-ordination centre that all buildings in the area had now been cleared. The team returned to base-camp through heavy traffic passing through the area of Nagata-Ku which had suffered horrific fires.
During the late evening, we received a call from the Japanese deputy Prime Minister who was very appreciative of our efforts.
Mr. Nishsdsa, from the prefect’s office, arrived at 07:30 with transport to take us to sites in Ryoyu in the city centre but due to traffic problems the team co-ordinator and team-leader went on foot, to carry out a recce prior to the arrival of the main team.
The first building that we searched was a five-storey domestic dwelling which had partially pancaked and was lying at a grotesque angle with one person reported missing. The building had not been searched as it was deemed too dangerous.
One IRC member descended to the top of the building from adjoining buildings which were also leaning and following a search and the removal of rubble, the body of a man was found on the top floor. His body was extricated and handed over to the police. We also involved the Japanese rescue team who arrived at the site, which I think did a lot for inter-team relations. This search and extrication had been watched by the British Ambassador Mr. Boyde and Mr. Cockerham who gave the team a considerable boost with their visit and kind words. Mr. Boyde had apparently diverted to the area after he heard the search live on the radio, broadcast from a media helicopter hovering overhead.
After a recce, the team moved on to an eight storey block containing bars, cafes and restaurants. The fourth floor, made up of seven individual premises had pancaked on to the third floor.
A team spent all afternoon searching this building, crawling between floors, checking stairwells and lifts. A sound location search was carried out from the fifth down to the fourth floors. During this search a team was despatched to another area to search a series of buildings near the school. Searches in this area were then complete and the police were informed that the buildings were clear.
A team of five, plus Kenji Aiba who acted as interpreter were then despatched to the prefecture of Nagata-Ku to meet the co-ordinator and established whether there are any buildings to be searched. The officer with the special task force took the number of the Kobe club with the intention of informing us of any more sites and he also indicated that he would like to come along and look at our specialist equipment including the TIC, Sonde and Fibre Optic Probe and appeared very impressed as he had not seen any of these before. The team that had been to Nagata-Ku returned at about 20:30 and there then followed a team briefing.
Contact was made with the UK to check on the availability of flights and to send an updated situation report.
The team was ready to move again at 07:00 26th January. Arrangements had been made by the British Embassy via our Operations Room in the UK for us to leave on 27th January.
Mr. Nishsda, from the prefect’s office, arrived at 09:15 and asked if the team could help at a landslide at Nikawa in the city area of Nishinomiya, approximately three hours drive away. Due to traffic problems, we decided to take all equipment and personal kit with us, as Nikawa is nearer to Osaka, from where we were due to fly on Friday.
Several hours were spent travelling to the landslide site and on arrival the co-ordinator and I went forward on a recce.
Two or three houses had collapsed about 300 or 400 metres away and approximately 100 metres up the hillside, with no sign of them left. Bulldozers and cranes were digging away to locate the bodies of seven people who were missing in what was just solid earth. One body was located 20 metres down whilst we were at the scene. Leaving our best wishes with the police chief, we left the scene.
It was confirmed by Mr. Mishsda that we had no more sites to search so the team withdrew from the disaster area to the Tenrikyo HQ which was only an hour from the airport.
On arrival at the HQ the team sorted out the equipment and boxed it ready for the flight. Four team members, along with Mr. Aiba, took the equipment along to the airport to check in for our flight the following day. Meanwhile the rest of the team was given a meal and some first class hospitality from the Tenrikyo team members.
The 27th saw us again stuck in traffic after leaving at 05:30 to catch the 08:30. But for some ‘imaginative’ driving by our driver we would have missed the flight. As it was, we boarded the 08:30 flight at 08:29!
Whilst waiting for our connection at Tokyo Narita airport, a fax arrived from the British Ambassador congratulating the team and we also received a visit from Mr. Kutuzawa, the Economic Planning Minister.
The team arrived at London Heathrow at 17:45GMT 27th January, where a small press conference was held. Two members went directly to Sky TV’s studios, whilst the rest of the team returned to Glory Mill to unpack.
I believe we were very effective in what we carried out and the efforts of International Rescue Corps were well received by both the Japanese Government and its people.
The Japanese Foreign Minister called on the British Ambassador to pass on his thanks to the team and this was done in the form of a letter to IRC in which the British Ambassador also stated how impressed he and his wife had been to see IRC at work.
Since our return from Kobe, I have received a further letter from the Ambassador in which he stated that IRC was a “credit to the flag”.
To feature any part of our stories in your own publications, please contact Julie Ryan on email@example.com or call +44 7786 881 908