Abandoned at Futaba Hospital

35 patients left behind for fourth time as miscommunication plagued SDF rescue operation (6)

2021.04.13 8:39 Nanami Nakagawa

The road from Okuma town to Koriyama. Photo taken on March 27, 2014 by Shinshu Hida. (C) Shinshu Hida

On March 14 and 15, 2011, responders scrambled for safety as increasing levels of radiation escaped from Fukushima No. 1’s damaged unit 2.

Futaba Hospital Director Ichiro Suzuki, Futaba Deputy Police Chief Akimasa Nitta, and others at the hospital were forced to leave behind the 92 patients still awaiting rescue and retreat to Wariyama Tunnel, about 20 kilometers southwest of the nuclear plant.

Although they had hoped to link up with Self-Defense Forces coming from Camp Koriyama, before they knew it the SDF had arrived at Futaba Hospital and begun evacuating patients.

This lack of communication and coordination would undermine the rescue operation again and again.

March 14: New units take over

On the morning of March 14, a unit from the SDF’s 12th brigade had evacuated 132 patients and residents from Futaba Hospital and retirement home Deauville Futaba. However, due to a greater number of bedridden patients than the unit had been led to believe, their buses hit capacity and moved out with 92 patients and three corpses still left behind.

When the unit’s commanding officer returned to Camp Koriyama at 4 p.m. that day, he made the following report to his superiors at the 12th brigade command center.

“In addition to being told the wrong number of patients, almost all were bedridden. The hospital has two separate wards that house patients; those in the second still haven’t been evacuated.”

The brigade leadership had told him not to worry, as “the evacuation would be completed with ambulances gathered by units from Tohoku and Kanto.”

The officer was ordered to prepare to depart for Iwaki city, where his unit had taken the patients evacuated that morning.

Two new units would be taking over the rescue operation. One, a medical unit from the 12th brigade, would head to Futaba Hospital with four ambulances. The second, from the SDF’s Tohoku regional headquarters in Sendai city, would come with five ambulances, two large buses, and one minibus; the unit also included a medical officer and three SDF nurses.

March 15, dawn: Unaware of other’s role

The SDF unit from Sendai arrived at Camp Koriyama around dawn on March 15, joining the 12th brigade medical unit that had been waiting there on standby.

But there was no communication between the two groups. The commanding officer of the 12th brigade medical unit testified as follows to public prosecutors in Saitama on Dec. 25, 2012.

“Although we had heard that a unit from the Tohoku headquarters would be participating in the Futaba Hospital evacuation, there were no instructions as to how we were supposed to work together or what each unit’s role would be — we didn’t even know how to contact them.”

The Tohoku regional headquarters defense planning division head was part of the unit sent on the Futaba Hospital mission. He was responsible for coordinating with the 12th brigade and, after arriving at Camp Koriyama, had spoken with members of its leadership about the roles of the two units.

“As a result of our discussion, it was decided that the Tohoku unit would handle the evacuation of Futaba Hospital and that the 12th brigade unit would handle the evacuation of other facilities,” he testified at a hearing with public prosecutors in Sendai on Jan. 25, 2013.

But by that point, there were no residents left in the area surrounding Fukushima No. 1 except the patients remaining at Futaba Hospital.

The planning division head continued: “However, I don’t really remember what facilities the 12th brigade unit was responsible for.”

To summarize, the 12th brigade unit wasn’t aware of the division of labor between the two groups. And the Tohoku unit didn’t think the 12th brigade unit was involved with the Futaba Hospital evacuation.

March 15, 6:45 – 9 a.m.: Strategy meeting cut short

At 6:45 a.m., still unclear about each others’ roles, the two units participated in a strategy meeting at the Camp Koriyama command center. It was a chance to finally iron out the details of the operation.

However, soon after the meeting began, the colonel in charge of the Tohoku unit received a call on his mobile from the SDF Tohoku headquarters.

“Begin the rescue operation immediately. The 12th brigade will mobilize separately.”

The colonel left the meeting still in progress, and his unit departed for Futaba Hospital.

“The officer who seemed to be in charge of the Tohoku unit got up in the middle of the strategy meeting and told his unit to move out,” remembered the 12th brigade medical unit commanding officer at the Dec. 25, 2012 hearing.

The Tohoku unit had not told any of their counterparts where they were headed.

Water and biscuits lay abandoned on the road in front of Futaba Hospital. Photo taken on March 18, 2012 by Shinshu Hida. (C) Shinshu Hida

March 15, 7–9 a.m.: Ready for radiation?

After the Tohoku unit’s departure, the 12th brigade medical unit first made sure they had the necessary gear to protect themselves from radiation.

Following a directive from the head of the brigade, the unit’s commanding officer was given a dosimeter, and all members were outfitted with protective suits and gas masks that could withstand even a chemical weapons attack.

When the original 12th brigade rescue unit had first set out for Futaba Hospital on March 12 without protective gear, they had been forced to return to Camp Koriyama following a hydrogen explosion at the plant’s unit 1. The 12th brigade would not be making the same mistake twice.

When Fukushima No. 1’s unit 2 began to melt down on the night of March 14, the head of the 12th brigade issued a “mission oriented protective posture (MOPP) 4” order, requiring SDF members to outfit themselves with the highest level of protective gear against a toxic environment.

At a hearing with public prosecutors on Dec. 27, 2012, the commanding officer of the Tohoku unit responded as follows when asked about his unit’s awareness of the need to protect themselves against radiation.

“Because the 12th brigade was active in the area surrounding Fukushima No. 1 since around March 13, I think they had a greater sense of danger regarding the nuclear plant than we did — we had been mostly conducting rescue operations in Miyagi Prefecture.”

At last fully equipped, the 12th brigade medical unit departed Camp Koriyama at 9 a.m., two hours after their Tohoku counterparts.

March 15, 9–11 a.m.: The “monster” closes in

The Tohoku unit had set out for Futaba Hospital with five ambulances, two large buses, and one minibus.

The condition of the roads worsened as they neared the Fukushima coast. Faced with warped pavement and collapsed bridges, it was slow going. Finally, after a number of detours, the unit reached Futaba Hospital at 9 a.m., two hours after they had set out.

Entering the hospital, they called out to the mostly bedridden patients, but there was no response. To the untrained eye, it was difficult to tell whether they were living or dead. Name cards originally attached the patients’ beds had been removed and tucked into their blankets, so that responders could identify them.

The five ambulances were soon full, and bedridden patients were next loaded onto the buses. They were laid across multiple seats or made to recline in a single one.

About 30 minutes into the rescue operation, the defense planning division head, who had come with the unit, started to hear more insistent beeping coming from his dosimeter.

Dosimeters measure total exposure to radiation, and they beep once for every microsievert accumulated. As the unit continued to work, they accumulated more and more radiation, until finally the beeping from the division head’s dosimeter became incessant.

“It’s like some radioactive monster closing in on us,” he thought.

When he checked his dosimeter 90 minutes later, it had a reading of roughly three millisieverts (3,000 microsieverts).

The SDF’s Tohoku headquarters had stipulated that women were allowed a maximum does of five millisieverts. Although the limit was 100 millisieverts for men, the unit’s three nurses were women. They would soon be exposed to the maximum dose.

“It’s too dangerous! We need to get out!” shouted the young medical officer.

The defense planning division head spoke with the unit’s commanding officer: “In another 30 minutes, the women will be at their maximum dose.”

The commanding officer agreed to halt the evacuation.

“Although it felt horrible to make the decision, I suspended the operation without evacuating all the patients because I also had to consider the safety of my subordinates,” he explained at a hearing at the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office on Dec. 27, 2012.

“We were reaching the maximum allowed dose of radiation. I determined there was no choice but to halt the evacuation.”

At 11 a.m., all vehicles from the Tohoku unit departed Futaba Hospital, taking with them 48 patients. One patient had disappeared, and, by now, the number of corpses had grown to four. Forty-two patients were left behind as radiation continued to fall.

Around this time, the 12th brigade medical unit, having taken an extra two hours to depart Camp Koriyama, was just arriving at Futaba Hospital.

But although they were outfitted in the SDF’s highest level of protective gear, this unit would also fail to rescue all the remaining patients.

Cows, abandoned in the disaster, appear on a road in Okuma town. Photo taken on March 18, 2012 by Shinshu Hida. (C) Shinshu Hida

March 15, 11 a.m.: Passing like strangers

Before the Tohoku unit could make it far, a badly damaged road brought the convoy to a standstill. There, they were approached by an officer from the Central Readiness Force (CRF), a special forces unit that operated under the direct command of the minister of defense in the event of an emergency.

“There’s a lot of radiation in this area,” he told the Tohoku unit commanding officer. “Quickly move to a safe location.”

Conscious of the pressing need to escape the reach of radiation, the commanding officer ordered his caravan to make for Koriyama at speed.

Once again underway, they saw the 12th brigade medical unit approaching from the opposite direction. It was a chance for them to explain the situation at the hospital directly to the incoming unit.

Neither group slowed down. Soon, both were out of sight.

Although the Tohoku unit had left Futaba Hospital, the defense planning division head stayed behind a little longer to count the number of patients who still needed rescue. The task complete, he departed the hospital by car and reported to the Tohoku command center that their unit had not been able to evacuate all the patients due to the high level of radiation.

However, he failed to mention that Futaba Hospital had a second ward — housing 35 patients, 80% of those still remaining — located behind its first ward and admin building.

The division head wasn’t aware that the 12th brigade medical unit would soon arrive at the hospital. Although he assumed that some unit or other would come to complete the evacuation, he didn’t consider the second ward particularly hard to find.

The SDF made two critical missteps on the morning of March 15. The first was that, as they left the area, the Tohoku unit didn’t communicate to the 12th brigade medical unit how many patients remained and where they were located. The second was the defense planning division head’s failure to mention that 35 patients were housed in Futaba Hospital’s second ward.

March 15, 11 a.m. – evening: “All” seven patients rescued

Futaba Hospital’s three buildings: two wards and an admin building

The 12th brigade medical unit arrived at Futaba Hospital at 11:30 a.m., half an hour after the Tohoku unit had left. Their caravan — comprised of four ambulances and two SDF vehicles — was relatively small compared with the previous unit’s five ambulances, two large buses, and one minibus.

Upon entering the hospital, the unit found seven patients lying on beds.

The SDF officers tried to ask the patients whether they were ok, but none responded. The seven were carried into the ambulances, still wrapped in their blankets.

The medical unit’s commanding officer felt something wasn’t right. “We were told there were about 90 patients left. Seven just seems like too few,” he thought.

The commanding officer knew from the strategy meeting at Camp Koriyama earlier that morning that the Tohoku unit was also involved in the Futaba Hospital rescue operation. But even if the Tohoku unit had evacuated some of the patients, he thought there would be more than seven left.

The unit’s 20 officers combed the first ward and admin building for other patients but couldn’t find any. The commanding officer finally decided that all the others must have been evacuated.

No one had noticed the second ward, located behind the first ward and admin building and linked to them by a long passageway. Its 35 patients were, once again, left behind.

“The Tohoku unit, which had helped evacuate Futaba Hospital before we arrived, came with large buses in addition to ambulances,” recalled the medical unit’s commanding officer at a hearing at the Saitama District Court on Dec. 25, 2012. “It was a much bigger unit, so I thought maybe they had been able to evacuate about 80 of the patients.”

Forty-five minutes after arriving, at 12:15 p.m., the 12th brigade medical unit left Futaba Hospital.

Main locations related to the SDF rescue operation on March 15, 2011

Like the Tohoku unit before it, the 12th brigade medical unit also headed for Koriyama. They lost communication in a mountainous region on the way, but when they emerged on the other side the unit made a report to the 12th brigade command center.

“The evacuation of all patients at Futaba Hospital is complete. We evacuated seven.”

The 12th brigade unit caught up with the Tohoku unit while patients were being screened for radiation before being taken to their final evacuation locations. During that time, the medical officer from the Tohoku unit asked a 12th brigade officer about the other patients.

Specifically — “What happened with the 35 patients in Futaba Hospital’s second ward?”

However, this information didn’t reach the medical unit’s commanding officer until the unit had once again gotten underway and were taking a break at a rest stop on the Tohoku Expressway. Only then did the commanding officer realize that they hadn’t gotten everyone out.

This oversight could have been avoided if the two groups had communicated when they passed each other as the Tohoku unit left and the 12th brigade unit approached Futaba Hospital.

By this point, groups of patients had been evacuated from the hospital four times: on buses sent by Okuma town hall on March 12, by the initial 12th brigade unit on March 14, and by the Tohoku and 12th brigade medical units on March 15.

And yet, through radiation and miscommunication, 35 still lay abandoned at Futaba Hospital.

To be continued.

(Compiled from articles originally published in Japanese on March 17, 18 and 19, 2021. Translation by Annelise Giseburt.)

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