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Government officials walk down a recently cleared roadway where the earthquake-spawned tsunami caused a massive fuel spill and fire.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

A man waits as firefighters pry open his car to look for missing family members. There was no one inside.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Japanese soldiers sift through debris in the coastal town.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Vehicles and debris litter the Natori neighborhood hit hard by the tsunami.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

A family looks over what is left of their destroyed home in the Natori neighborhood hit hard by the tsunami.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Rescue workers transport a body found in the rubble.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

A 63-year-old woman brushes debris off a portrait of her father that she found still hanging in the ruins of her home.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Women look for names of survivors listed on boards at a victims assistance center in the Natori neighborhood.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Toshiyuki Momma with his daughter Rino, 5, wait along with hundreds others outside a supermarket. Some had been waiting for five hours.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

An elderly earthquake refugee arranges her possessions in an elementary school gym in Miyako in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. She did not want to be identified because they said she felt ashamed that she was in a position of having the government care for her.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

The Japanese town of Ishinomaki is flooded and the city's downtown area remains deserted.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

Rescue workers search the debris for any survivors and victims.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

City firefighters patrol the streets of the town, where only a few dozens homes remain standing.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

The Natori area of the town was completely destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami that followed. Fires burn in the neighborhood as civil servants are finally able to enter the area to look for the dead.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

The Natori area of the town was destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Government workers uncover the bodies of two people who died in the town.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Japanese soldiers search through the rubble looking for tsunami victims. The village of Minamisanriku had about 16,000 inhabitants before the quake and tsunami. More than half are still missing.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

A photo album is mired in mud near the home of the Otomo family. Their neighborhood was destroyed by the last week's earthquake and resulting tsumani.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Tatsuhiro Karino and his wife Masako Karino grieve over the body of their son, Tetsuya, 11. Their daughter, Misaki, 8, is still missing. More than 80 students and 10 teachers died at Ookawa Elementary School when the tsunami swept through the school.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Cars lie haphazard, dumped by the tsunami.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

One of many fishing boats tossed onto land by the tsunami rests against a building downtown.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

One of several rescue and recovery teams moves through what is left of the village of Minamisanriku, where the tsunami cleared the land.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Kukiko Fushimi is screened for radiation along with her two grandchildren.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Meguni Sasaki, right, and her husband, Satoru Sasaki, both 36, return to their neighborhood to collect what few possessions they can find. One of the items was a couch. "This used to be in our living room," said Meguni Sasaki. "It was so expensive." Satoru Sasaki located the second floor of their home about a quarter of a mile away from the original location, where they also found a couch and a few possessions.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Men on guard duty at an evacuation center burn cardboard to keep warm as nighttime temperatures dip into the 30s.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

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Behind the lens: Covering the Japan earthquake aftermath

In the hours after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami in northern Japan, the wheels were in motion to dispatch Los Angeles Times staffers to cover the disaster. Not only was this a huge story but earthquakes are a subject close to home for our readers in California. Reporters were sent from Beijing, New Delhi and Dubai. Staff photographers Carolyn Cole and Brian van der Brug scrambled from New York City and Los Angeles, respectively. The photographers are no strangers to covering major catastrophes — they both were on the ground after the Haiti earthquake last year and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In Japan they encountered scenes of massive devastation, tragedy and hardship. When in such a situation, journalists often live in the same conditions and among the same dangers as those affected, but this is not to diminish the suffering and pain of those who live there. Journalists can always go home after the story is done. What follows is our photographers’ account of what they experienced on this story:

Brian van der Brug

I heard about the earthquake just after it happened, around 10 p.m. in Los Angeles, and was watching the amazing tsunami footage on television. I’d never seen anything like it. A little after midnight a photo editor called and asked me if I could get on the next flight to Japan.

I got up and started packing for a couple hours and made travel arrangements. Hearing from weather reports that it could could be cold, I packed along fleece, hat, gloves and rain gear to keep warm and dry for the expected snow and subfreezing temperatures. I always try to pack light. In a disaster zone you need to be prepared to spend the night anywhere. I brought a sleeping bag and pad. For camera gear I had two Canon EOS 5D Mark IIs, 24-70mm 2.8 and 70-200mm 2.8  lenses as well as a 1.5 teleconverter. I also packed a 300mm 4.5 in case we had the opportunity to shoot aerials.

My morning flight was delayed for over four hours because most of the airports and other transportation in Japan were shut down. When we finally boarded, we were told the flight might not be able to land in Tokyo. If the airport was still closed we would continue on to Seoul. Luckily, the airport reopened and we landed after the 11-hour flight. I rented a local cellphone, converted dollars to yen. I had been in contact with colleagues who were also headed to Japan, and once on the ground we got organized. I hooked up with five other journalists, another Times photographer, Carolyn Cole, and a reporter, plus reporters from the Toronto Star and Handelsblad, a newspaper in the Netherlands. They arrived before me and had arranged a rental van and English-speaking driver, a Japanese guy named Tetse, who had been in the French foreign legion and spoke several languages. For the next couple days we would all be together, sharing scarce resources.

The trip north from Tokyo to the quake-affected areas was an all-nighter. The six of us slept for a few hours inside the van in a 7-Eleven parking lot. After the quake there had been a run on food and water and the only food left to buy was junk food. We were grateful to have the chips, cookies and crackers, as thousands of people here had nothing. The next morning we arrived in Sendai and drove into the suburb of Natori, one of the hardest hit by the tsunami. I’d never seen tsunami damage before. It was as if the entire town was scooped up, put in a giant food processor, mixed with water and dumped back out on the ground. Cars were inside houses, houses were on cars. Most the town was crushed. Boats were stranded hundreds of meters inland. It was almost deserted. There were few bodies and I didn’t expect that. In Haiti, where I had been last year, they were everywhere. In Japan they were missing, swept out to sea.

The first few days I sent pictures back to the newspaper using a satellite modem. Because power lines were down, we used an inverter in the van to power our computers and cellphones. We monitored news on the radio, and talked to other journalists about what was happening around northeastern Japan. We look at the reports and images from other news organizations to get clues on where the next good story might come from.

Our job is to report and move on, looking for more stories to share with our readers. We tried to go to a different town every day, working our way up the coast. Getting fuel turned out to be a major problem. Gas stations that had electricity were out of gas and some stations had gas but no electricity. The fuel that was available was rationed. Food and water were in short supply. Our driver quit after 3 days. Radiation was leaking from the Fukushima nuclear plant just 60 miles away from our base in Sendai. We all agreed was time to move.

There turned out to be other places farther north where there was even greater damage. I had heard the town of Kesennuma was wiped out by the tsunami, then burned after fuel tanks in the harbor ruptured. Over 10,000 people were missing. All the towns along the northeastern seaboard- Ishinomaki, Minamisanriku, Yamada, Miyako and on — were devastated. Nothing can really prepare you for what you will see on any given day. The scope of the damage was enormous. Whole cities were pulverized by the giant wave.

Japan is a modern first-world country with infrastructure equal to, or better than, the United States. The area was brought to its knees. A line at one supermarket was six blocks long. There were even longer lines for gas, and some waited all day for just a few liters of petrol. Could a big quake could do the same to California? I emailed home to my family and friends to remind everyone to get earthquake supplies together with food and water. Lots of it.

After those first few days our group split up and fanned out across the region. We found the harrowing story of a woman who rode out the tsunami waves in her car. A heroic man who donned a wetsuit and swam in to rescue his wife, then waded through the debris to rescue his mother. The story will continue to play for months and years.

Carolyn Cole

It has been two weeks since I got a call from my photo editor in the middle of the night informing me of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It seems much longer.

I knew it was going to be a difficult assignment, having heard that all forms of transportation had stopped. I had never been to Japan, didn’t speak the language, and had no time to reach out for help before boarding a flight to Tokyo.

Once I landed, I began begging TV crews and aid groups at the airport for a ride to the disaster zone, without any luck. Most other journalists were in the same position, lacking a car, driver or translator.

When a car was finally secured, it took another 18  hours to reach the disaster area on a rural road through Fukushima district, not far from the nuclear plant. We waited in lines of cars, many people fleeing with their children and pets away from the plant. One single mother was holding her child’s hand in the back seat while driving with her other hand. Many people wore masks over their nose and mouth, so I followed suit. I also wore a coat, gloves, and cap as much for protection from falling particles as for the cold.

I first saw the magnitude of the devastation on the coast of Sendai. I had covered Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and many California earthquakes, but this was far beyond any natural disaster I had covered in the past. Boats stood on their sterns, tops of houses rested in the middle of rice paddies and cars twisted around lampposts.

It would be days before search teams could even begin to look for the missing.

One of the saddest scenes I encountered was a husband and wife holding the body of their dead 11-year-old son wrapped in a blanket. They had found him in the muddy playground of the elementary school destroyed by the tsunami. Soon after, they began the search for their still-missing daughter in the same field of destruction.

Everyone I met in Japan carried themselves with the same courage and dignity as this couple. I will never forget their strength and determination.

As I prepare to leave Japan for my next assignment, my thoughts will be with the Japanese who are working hard to rebuild their country.


  1. April 5, 2011, 7:29 am

    These pics replay in my soul again, that which I steadily looked at for a good twenty hours, of the many videos of the power of the earthquakes themselves, and then, the tsunamis which finished the job of destruction, for so many of the people of Japan.

    I hadn’t realized it during this marathon of checking videos those 20 hours or so, but very soon after, I was hit with what felt to me like a mini-PTSD bout, and for days afterwards, I felt very depressed, as my heart cried out for the Japanese people in their time of greatest need! Even today, I am amazed at the strength of the people, having gone through such a cataclysmic loss. My prayers unto the Creator go out for them, as away from the many pics and videos, I fear there are hundreds of thousands of people who are in constant tears for the extent of their losses, both of material goods and most especially of their families.

    By: JimT
  2. April 11, 2011, 9:00 am

    Thanks for the pix and the comments from the photographers.

    By: Robert
  3. April 12, 2011, 12:13 am

    […] Photos: Covering a Japan earthquake […]

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