Families want answers after 45 people died following evacuation from
Kazuhiko Sato, left, carrying a portrait of his deceased father Kyugo, is pictured with his family members at a
OKUMA, Fukushima -- Nearly 45 people out of some 440 patients and workers at a hospital here are estimated to have died while or after being evacuated following the accident at the tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.
However, the national government had not assumed any situation in which medical institutions and nursing care facilities become unable to evacuate all their patients at the time of a serious natural disaster. Experts have expressed fear that a similar problem could occur in case of major disasters in the future.
Approximately 340 inpatients were at
Even though these facilities were not hit by a massive tsunami triggered by the temblor, electric power and water supply was cut off.
The day after the quake, authorities issued an evacuation order in areas within 10 kilometers from the nuclear power station. In response, 209 patients at the hospital and care home who were able to walk on their own, as well as many of workers, fled the area. However, bed-ridden and seriously handicapped patients were unable to do so.
In this March 11, 2011 photo released Monday, April 11, 2011 by Tokyo Electric Power Co.,(TEPCO), the access road at the compound of the
Hospital director Ichiro Suzuki said his facility asked the prefectural government later on that day to rescue the bed-ridden and paralyzed patients.
On the early morning of March 14, a health and welfare office in Minami-Soma,
Shortly afterwards, about 130 patients and workers that the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) had rescued from the hospital arrived at the office by bus. Most of them were bed-ridden or suffering from dementia and appeared in poor condition. They were not accompanied by hospital employees and no medical records on them were available.
Kenji Sasahara, 45, a doctor and deputy head of the health office, screened the evacuees for radiation. At 2 p.m., the patients were transported to an evacuation shelter at
Although the direct distance between the health office and shelter was about 70 kilometers, the bus was forced to take a detour to avoid coming close to the crippled nuclear power station, and spent nearly six hours before arriving at the shelter.
School principal Masaaki Tashiro was shocked to see the patients in the vehicle -- two of them were already dead and others had had incontinence, with their intravenous lines disconnected. The school has no medical equipment and the identities of the patients were not known.
School officials and medical staff laid tatami mats and sheets on the floor of the school gymnasium and spent two hours to transport the patients to the gymnasium using tables as stretchers. Nurses dispatched to the school tore curtains and used them as diapers.
In this Friday, March 18, 2011 satellite image released by DigitalGlobe, the
Despite their strenuous efforts, two of the evacuees died in the early hours of March 15. The principal even appealed for assistance on a local FM radio station, saying, "Help us!"
At the time, about 90 patients and four hospital workers as well as police officers and Self-Defense Forces (SDF) members were at the hospital. The crisis at the nuclear plant was only growing worse, and a GSDF rescue team never came to rescue them.
Following an explosion at the nuclear plant, SDF members remaining at the hospital left there after telling staff, "We must go back."
At around 1 a.m. on March 15, police officers urged hospital staff to evacuate, saying, "You have no choice but to leave here." In response, the staff fled to the neighboring
"We heard that the staff were standing by because they had been told that an SDF rescue team would come again after the first round of rescue operations, but eventually they fled there because the team never came," a high-ranking official of the prefectural police said.
In the meantime, a senior GSDF officer posted at a nuclear disasters task force near the plant was desperate to confirm whether rescue operations at the hospital were complete.
While a rescue team reported to him that some elderly patients were still remaining at the institution, a government official in charge stubbornly claimed that the prefectural police reported that all the rescue work had been completed.
In this photo from a footage of a live camera released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), black smoke billows from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant in Okumamachi, northeastern
Later in the morning, the team went to the hospital to find bed-ridden elderly patients were remaining at the institution, which was filled with a strange odor.
"If we had been able to confirm the identities of the patients and their medical records had been available, we could've saved at least some of them," the officer said.
About 90 patients rescued by the GSDF team were transported to evacuation shelters in the
Patients who were taking shelter at
A bus carrying 21 of the patients arrived at
Four patients admitted to a nursing care home for the elderly in Aizu-Wakamatsu were so weakened that they were initially unable to respond to nurses' questions.
About a month later, a staff member of
One of the patients expressed anger at
On April 6,
Sato's 47-year-old son, Kazuhiko, recalled that he could not help but shed tears when he thought that his father died without anybody by his bedside. Kazuhiko Sato, taking shelter in Tokyo, had visited one evacuation shelter after another in disaster-hit areas looking for his father.
At a police station,
He said he asked Suzuki, "Is cancer indeed the only cause of his death? Why did you abandon him at the hospital?" However, Suzuki declined to provide any explanation by simply saying, "I'm sorry."
Sato emphasizes he wants to clarify under what circumstances his father died after most hospital employees fled. "I want to know the truth."
Other patients at the hospital died one after another, reportedly bringing the death toll at the institution to about 45.
The central government had previously worked out guidelines for evacuating elderly and handicapped people at the time of a natural disaster after many elderly people were unable to escape following serious disasters, such as the Chuetsu quake in
The Okuma Municipal Government compiled its own evacuation assistance plan in April 2009.
However, the plan covers the procedure for evacuating elderly and handicapped people staying at home. It is extremely rare that all patients must be simultaneously evacuated from hospitals and nursing care institutions like in the case of
"In principle, hospitals and nursing care homes are responsible for the evacuation of their inpatients," a Cabinet Office official said.
"We were unable to contact the hospital or share information with the prefectural government and the SDF. The evacuation of inpatients from a hospital was beyond the scope of our assumption," said an official with the Okuma Municipal Government.
In interviews with the Mainichi on March 17 and 21,
He has since declined to be interviewed. "I'd like to talk about it after an in-house investigation has been completed," he said through a hospital insider.
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