TOKYO – In a dramatic rescue shown on live TV, a 2-year-old boy was pulled out alive Wednesday after four days trapped inside his family's minivan, buried by an earthquake-induced landslide.
The joy was muted, however, by news that rescuers were unable to save Yuta Minagawa's mother, and the fate of his 3-year-old sister looked increasingly grim.
The family's white van was swept away Saturday in a wave of boulders and earth that pulverized the hillside road they were on when the 6.8-magnitude quake ripped across rural Niigata prefecture (search).
The van was spotted Tuesday under hillside rubble, and television cameras tracked rescuers painstakingly digging through to a voice they heard inside. Eventually, the toddler was shown being lifted out in the arms of an orange-clad rescue worker — covered in mud and looking weak, but conscious. He was airlifted by helicopter to a hospital.
"The area was crushed by a large rock, and Yuta just happened to find a one-meter [3-foot] opening and was standing up by himself," said Mitsuo Kiyotsuka, one of the rescuers, smiling in wonder. "We'd been telling ourselves we'd get them out. But then he appeared and it was like, 'Can this be true?'"
Hours later, the body of his mother, Takako, 39, was pulled from the wreckage and airlifted to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead, raising the death toll from the quake to 32. Hospital officials said doctors believed she had died instantly from the impact.
A sister, Mayu, was still buried and her condition was uncertain. Rescuers temporarily halted their search amid aftershocks Wednesday but later resumed.
Officials at Nagaoka Red Cross Hospital said the boy was suffering from dehydration, hypothermia and a large gash on his head, but was in stable condition. NHK public broadcaster quoted the toddler telling his father he drank milk in the car and was asking for melons and water at the hospital.
The search for Mayu continued in darkness late Wednesday in the face of increasingly bleak signs.
Temperatures plunged to about 46 degrees in the mountainous region some 160 miles north of Tokyo. Media reports cited disaster officials saying heat-sensitive sensors were unable to detect the child and rescuers' calls to her were not answered. Kyodo News agency reported that rescuers had spotted her body in the car but that it showed no vital signs.
Though the jubilation was increasingly tempered, Yuta's surprise rescue was greeted as a miracle amid the wreckage of the earthquake — the deadliest to hit Japan since 1995 when a 7.2-magnitude temblor killed 6,000 people in the western city of Kobe (search).
The plight of Yuta and his family drew intense interest in Japan as TV stations showed the desperate attempts by his father, who had been working in Tokyo at the time of the quake, to track down his wife and children.
When the van was spotted on the hillside Tuesday, it was greeted with jubilation. Residents evacuated to public shelters watched intently as the rescue unfolded on television, praying for the family's safety.
The rescue operation was threatened by aftershocks that shook the treacherous landscape. Workers froze and pulled back when a 6.1-magnitude aftershock rocked the region Wednesday morning, followed by a 4.2-magnitude aftershock about 25 minutes later. They were forced to temporarily call off the search during the afternoon to find safer ground.
More than 440 aftershocks have been recorded since Saturday, including four of magnitude 6 or higher, although they were becoming less frequent.
Meanwhile, 100,000 residents remained in shelters amid fears the aftershocks could trigger more landslides. Thousands more were camped out in tents and cars, too afraid to return home.
With many roads still blocked by landslides and ruined roads, relief workers in helicopters and cars struggled to get emergency goods to isolated hamlets and overcrowded evacuation centers.