Minamisanriku, a quiet fishing port north of Sendai in northeastern Japan, disappeared last March 11. Sato nearly did too. The disaster started at 2:46 p.m., about 80 miles east in the Pacific, along a fault buried deep under the seafloor. A 280-mile-long block of Earth's crust suddenly lurched to the east, parts of it by nearly 80 feet. Sato had just wrapped up a meeting at the town hall. "We were talking about the town's tsunami defenses," he says. Another earthquake had jolted the region two days earlier—a precursor, scientists now realize, to the March 11 temblor, which has turned out to be the largest in Japan's history.
When the ground finally stopped heaving, after five excruciating minutes, Minamisanriku was still mostly intact. But the sea had just begun to heave. Sato and a few dozen others ran next door to the town's three-story disaster-readiness center. Miki Endo, a 24-year-old woman working on the second floor, started broadcasting a warning over the town's loudspeakers: "Please head to higher ground!" Sato and most of his group headed up to the roof. From there they watched the tsunami pour over the town's 18-foot-high seawall. They listened to it crush or sweep away everything in its path. Wood-frame houses snapped; steel girders groaned. Then dark gray water surged over the top of their building. Endo's broadcasts abruptly stopped.
Some 16,000 people died that day, most of them along hundreds of miles of coast in the Tohoku region, and nearly 4,000 are still missing. The tsunami eradicated several towns and villages in Tohoku and left hundreds of thousands homeless. In Minamisanriku the killed or missing number about 900 of 17,700 inhabitants, including Miki Endo, whose body was not found until April 23. Sato survived by climbing a radio antenna on the roof and clinging to it. "I think I was underwater for three or four minutes," he says. "It's hard to say." Many of the 30 or so other people on the roof tried to hang on to the iron railings at its edge. The waves kept coming all night long, and for the first few hours they repeatedly inundated the three-story building. In the morning only ten people remained on the roof.