At a volunteer firehouse that also serves as a shelter in the Japanese village of Matsubara, 64-year-old Fire Chief Akitoshi Takahashi has a new view of a firefighter’s duty, one forged both by the desire to protect his friends and neighbors and the death of his 33-year-old son, Toshiyuki, in the March 11 tsunami.
The volunteer spirit is crucial for firefighters, he said, “but more importantly, they have to be alive.”
Speaking outside the fire station on a spring day, Takahashi was alternately determined and grief-stricken Thursday as he described how his 12-member crew has rallied in the nearly three months since the tsunami roared through the Matsubara district of Kamaishi city, killing 25 people and leveling 160 of its 230 homes.
Jim Seida / msnbc.com
Volunteer Fire Chief Akitoshi Takahashi, 64, who lost his son in the March 11 tsunami, vows the disaster won't defeat the spirit of his crew. He's seen here holding a valve that was frozen open by saltwater from the tsunami.
“We have some accidents, disasters and fires, and every time we help them, we protect people living here,” he said. “We have had this volunteer spirit, that’s very important to protect people here and to help them be safe.”
Takahashi, a firefighter of 42 years whose home and rice shop were destroyed, knows about volunteerism and the responsibilities that come with it.
“My father was a volunteer firefighter and I was, and my son, too,” he said. “Living here, I felt obligated to volunteer. … I think my son felt the same way.”
Takahashi spoke through tears at several points when he spoke of Toshiyuki, who ran back a second time to call to neighbors to evacuate Matsubara, which is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Kesennuma.
Toshiyuki Takahashi’s body was found two months after the tsunami, stuck in a house in the same neighborhood as the fire station. As the fire chief and the head of the town committee, the elder Takahashi had to identify the body. He said he has hard feelings about the death of his middle child, “lots of feelings I can’t describe.”
“Both of us came to this office and went out to rescue people. But, it was my fault because I went out,” Akitoshi Takahashi gasped. “He went out, too, so it’s my fault that he died.”
“I just saw him run off, but I should have stopped him.”
A memorial service is scheduled for June 18 for those who died in Matsubara, including Toshiyuki.
A member of Takahashi’s crew, 43-year-old Fukuaki Ito, said the death of a comrade and the teamwork required to rebuild after the tsunami had in many ways made the unit stronger.
“Our bond is even tighter after this earthquake,” he said of the crew, one of eight volunteer teams in Kamaishi.
“His legacy will continue,” he added of Toshiyuki, whom he called his drinking buddy. “… His spirit to fight the tsunami will last.”
The firefighters spent the early days after the disaster replacing equipment lost to the waves, including a fire truck, hose, a pump and valves. Now they are helping the reconstruction, dropping off supplies and patrolling the area.
About two dozen who lost their homes now live in part of the firehouse, which also serves as a holding center for relief supplies. In the storage room, firemen’s silver jackets with neon stripes and helmets -- some gray, some white -- hang on the walls, barely visible behind the boxes of aid.
Ito said Chief Takahashi has been the glue that has held the team together since the tsunami. But with Takahashi saying he plans to retire soon, the responsibility of keeping the team strong will soon fall to Ito and other crew members.
He said Takahashi had been his mentor when he was an apprentice firefighter, teaching him how to put out fires -- “everything” – and now Ito was doing the same for the younger generation. The youngest firefighter is 21 and though the unit is seeking new members, none have been found. Once things settle down, he said, they’ll step up their recruitment efforts.
No matter, Chief Takahashi said his team is ready for the next blaze, with a new pump and an old red truck primed for action.
“There have been three major mountain fires and we have fought those,” he said. “I won’t let the tsunami beat us.”