TODD PITMAN and JAY ALABASTER, Associated Press
TAGAJO, Japan (AP) — Masashi Imai wrapped his arms around the wheelchair that held his disabled wife and clung on with all his strength.
Their home lurched and swayed as the ground fell away. The power went out. Imai switched on his wire radio and heard the warning.
Then came the deluge.
Imai picked up his wife's limp body, cradled it and carried her to the second floor. "Father! Father!" screamed a girl from a neighboring house. Imai's wife, who has mental problems after two strokes, began to laugh.
Many of Imai's neighbors had nowhere to run, because their houses had only one story. Eventually, the girl's voice went silent.
In the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, the line between life and death proved very thin -- just one story high, in Imai's case, or little more than a bus length away from a wall of water. Even along the killing zone of the northeastern coast, some buildings and entire neighborhoods were spared while others were obliterated. The death toll was feared to be higher than 10,000.
On that fateful Friday, Ayumi Osuga was practicing origami with her three children, aged 2 to 6, in their single-story home in the coastal city of Sendai. At 2:46 p.m., the ground started to shake. Cups and plates fell from cupboards and shattered, but the damage seemed minor.
Then Osuga's husband called. "Get out of there now!" he yelled.
Chilled by the brusque warning, the 24-year-old factory worker quickly gathered her children into the car and fled to a hilltop home belonging to her husband's family 12 miles (20 kilometers) away. She managed to beat waves moving at the speed of a jumbo jet.
Safe on higher ground, Osuga's family spent the night listening to the radio. The darkness was lit only by candles, and the cold was bitter; some snow still lay on the hills around.
On Sunday, she returned with her husband and relatives to a home that was no more. Among the only things that had survived were three large packs of diapers. Tears in her eyes, Osuga stuffed the diapers, along with ruined bank documents and family photos, into backpacks.
Osuga was hoping the neighborhood had been spared any deaths. But just then, a team of firefighters with wooden picks appeared. One of them yelled out: "a corpse." Inside a house about 15 yards (meters) away, they found the body of a gray-haired woman lying under a blanket.
A few minutes later, the firefighters spotted another: It was Osuga's neighbor. Wearing a black fleece and black pants, he lay crumpled in a partial fetal position, hugging some cardboard debris, at the bottom of a muddy wooden stairwell inside his home.
The top of the house appeared almost mockingly untouched -- with just two cracks in the white wall, and a small satellite dish still dotting the blue tiled roof.
Osuga knows she is lucky to be alive. "My family, my children ... I have come to realize what is important in life," she said.
As Osuga was playing with her children, Hisae Watanabe was examining watches on the second floor of the Loft department store in Sendai. She had come to Sendai for the day from Fukushima, one of hardest-hit cities, on business.
When the earthquake hit, everyone fell down. The glass in the watch cases shattered. The panic rose in Watanabe. Large pipes in the department store's ceiling began to come loose, swaying and banging into each other.
The staff was calm, used to earthquakes. They told everyone to run outside despite the danger of falling debris.
Watanabe ran out onto a walkway over the road. For some reason, there was a giant statue of the letter "P," poised at a funny angle. Everyone took pictures with their mobile phone cameras.
Then the walkway started swaying badly, and they ran down into the street. People screamed in the chaos. Watanabe spent the rest of the day trying to find shelter, and ended up passing a cold, hungry night at a railway station. She was waiting to return home when the trains started running again.
As she talked, the petite, 30-year-old woman sat alone on a cardboard sheet in Sendai's city hall, crowded with refugees who have nowhere else to go. She appeared haggard and shell-shocked.
Like Osuga, construction worker Yukou Ito was lucky enough to reach higher ground -- barely.
Ito was at work about 40 minutes from his home near the harbor in Hachinohe when the earthquake struck. He returned in time to see a wall of rising water, which funneled cars and boats down the street toward him.
"It was terrifying. ... It looked like a foreign movie where everyone's running from something scary," he said.
Ito grabbed a credit card and jumped into his compact car. Through his rearview mirror, he could see the huge tsunami crashing down the street just behind him. A fishing boat was right behind him.
Now, several inches (centimeters) of water cover the floor at the entrance of his apartment, along with his ruined refrigerator, his microwave and a cabinet. A pile of muddy clothes soak in a large plastic bucket filled with water.
"I have to start over from square one," he says, lighting a cigarette and looking at the men in hard hats dragging debris and twisted metal out of buildings. Huge fishing boats were turned on their sides in the road like children's toys. "I've got absolutely nothing left."
Still overcome by emotion, Imai paces back and forth along the Sunaoshi river that runs through his small hometown of Tagajo, his knee-high wading boots scraping along the ground. Other dazed survivors roam the devastated streets.
As Imai remembers his older neighbors who likely died in their houses, he breaks into tears.
"This river has given us so much, but on Friday it brought disaster," said the 56-year-old, a former hotel worker who quit his job to care for his wife of 33 years. "Even now, when I sit or close my eyes, I still feel like it is shaking."
As he talked, the river's current switched directions and suddenly dropped several feet (a meter) -- signs of another possible tsunami. A few minutes later came a small wave about a foot (30 centimeters), carrying oddly shaped debris.
It spun and dipped as it slowly floated by.
Associated Press writer Foster Klug contributed to this report from Hachinohe.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)