TOKYO: Thousands of rescuers combed through the wreckage of homes engulfed by landslides in western Japan on Thursday in the slim hope of finding survivors, a day after a wall of mud claimed at least 39 lives.
Police officers, firefighters and soldiers worked through the night in a desperate bid to find dozens missing among the sludge and rubble.
“The death toll remained the same at 39 while the number of those who are unaccounted for has risen to 43,” said an official from the disaster management office in Tokyo.
The tally of those missing rose from an earlier figure of seven, as more reports came in to local authorities.
Dozens of houses were buried when hillsides collapsed after torrential downpours in Hiroshima that saw more than a month’s rain fall in just three hours.
Throughout Wednesday there were moments of hope, with survivors who had sought refuge on the upper floors of their homes airlifted to safety, but there were also bodies carried away from the devastation wrapped in blankets or plastic sheeting.
It emerged Thursday that a 53-year-old rescuer who was killed in a secondary landslide the day earlier had died with a toddler in his arms.
Noriyoshi Masaoka, a firefighter with 35 years’ experience, had battled through the slurry of the initial mountain collapse to rescue five people, before going back to help more.
The Tokyo Shimbun said a man and his three-year-old son were among a party of eight he was trying to rescue.
A witness told the paper the father had thrown his son into Masaoka’s arms as he saw the second wave of mud and rocks beginning to cascade down the hillside.
He watched helplessly as the suffocating tide swallowed both the child and his would-be rescuer.
The bystander said the grief-stricken father remained where he was, just shouting his son’s name and unscathed by the landslip that claimed the young boy’s life