The incredible devastation resulting from Japan's largest earthquake in decades assaults the senses as soon as the first twisted and mangled homes are seen. But the real impact doesn't hit until a walk past the local civic center brings into view dozens of plain pine coffins stacked five high beside a ready supply of dry ice.
"We now have about 100 bodies here," said Takeshi Yoshida, director of the
Sogigaisha Funeral Home in Nishinomiya, six miles east of Kobe. Mr. Yoshida has been working overtime since Tuesday's earthquake. "But many neighborhoods haven't received help yet so we expect more to come."Inside the large building - itself cracked from Tuesday's earthquake - a large hall has been turned into a wholesale funeral home. The quake, centered 20 miles from Kobe, has now claimed more than 4,000 lives and caused tens of billions of dollars in property damage.
Thirty coffins lie in rows, each supported by six chairs. But there's little time for ceremony with relief workers rushing in and out and new bodies coming in all the time.
On some coffins, relatives have laid a flower or a piece of fruit. Most are unadorned except for a plain white cloth. At the fifth casket from the door on the left, a woman in a brown sweater sobs uncontrollably, her entire body draped over the coffin as if to embrace her lost relative one last time.
Others are more worried about the living. "I've lost my brother when his house collapsed," said Miamoto Isao, head of a small Tokyo publishing company.
"But it took three hours to dig my sister-in-law out," he adds. "She's got severe injuries yet the hospital has no water. We're trying to find a car to move her."
Everywhere there are images of death and destruction. Entire neighborhoods are completely flattened, particularly the old two-story houses with mud walls that failed to support their heavy tile roofs.
A child's doll, golf clubs, smashed motorbikes and breakfast dishes - the remnants of a family's most intimate moments - are all clearly visible through walls that no longer exist.
Some residents said it took Japan's cautious bureaucracy too long to send help to the Kansai region, which includes the major cities of Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto.
"The government finally got in the mood to do some rescuing," said Teruaki Iwamoto, owner of a charter boat company Thursday, as he pointed to several government emergency vehicles. "It took three days."
Mr. Iwamoto believes it will probably take close to a decade before the region fully recovers. "A lot of people say it won't take too long, but they're dreaming," he adds. "It's like going back to zero."
With more resources now coming to the Kobe area from the rest of Japan, meanwhile, authorities were working hard to restore some semblance of order.
"We're just trying to maintain the traffic flow and dig out the bodies," said a local police chief, who asked not to be identified.
Route 43, the only major road artery still open between Osaka and central Kobe, now takes up to eight hours to travel a distance normally traveled in 20 minutes.
Public transportation has broken down and people are using their cars to flee or bring supplies in, he said. Most roads are blocked by debris while a large number of cranes and emergency vehicles are streaming in. "We're reminding everyone it's still dangerous," he said. "Fifty meters away you can see where the highway stopped."
Less than 200 feet away is one part of the elevated Hanshin Expressway that collapsed. The image of a red charter bus teetering halfway over a severed section has been beamed around the world.
What has been less widely publicized, however, is the carnage just a few dozen feet below the bus. Beside the next section of highway, which also fell off its supports and plunged the 50 feet to earth, two giant tractor-trailer trucks met a fiery end.
Both trucks and a small car are burned beyond recognition, fueled by a load of paint thinner carried by the second truck. The truck tires are charred so badly that only the steel radial threads remain, like the gray stringy hair of an old woman.
"I commute everyday on that expressway," said Mizugu Okasaka, a 34-year- old laborer, gawking at the carnage. "If the quake had happened a little later this might have been me."
Authorities say their first priorities are to put out any remaining fires and rescue those still trapped in buildings. Hopes of finding survivors are fading, however, nearly 100 hours after the massive jolt.
Water is also a problem. On Thursday, rescue workers found themselves fighting a new blaze that required them to piece together 50 hoses because the closest water source was nearly a half mile away.
The lifeline into the area has been the Hankyu train line, which was packed Thursday with people carrying boxes of food to relatives. From its last usable stop, it's a good three-hour walk to central Kobe.
All three major train lines are stopped by broken bridges and crumbled track for several miles on each side of Kobe.
The Ikeda Bank near Nishinomiya station opened Thursday. Kazuo Nakamura, branch manager, said there's been no run on funds. But a large number of the now-homeless, many of whom are sleeping in train stations and schools, are putting valuables in safe deposit boxes.
Nearby, the Saty grocery store is selling food in its parking lot because the building doesn't have power and isn't safe yet.
"We just got water from Osaka," cries Yoshihiro Iwata, a department manager. "Only one per person." Mr. Iwata says water and dried Cup-A-Noodle soups have been selling most quickly.
Despite these early signs of progress, however, few underestimate the long- term impact on the Kobe-Osaka region's distribution system with so many roads and rail lines destroyed.
"It's going to be a big problem," said Scott Williams, a Kobe-area resident and managing director of an Alpha Graphics printing franchise. "In Japan inventory is (minimal). We have to have paper all the time but with the port out, it's never going to be in stock."
But a lot of people weren't thinking that far ahead as they relived the quake.
"I was in San Francisco for the 1989 earthquake, but this was much worse," said Robin Easley, program manager with Hewlett-Packard Co., on a business trip to Kobe. "I really felt like I was going to die."
CARGO VOLUME BETWEEN KOBE AND US PORTS
Sept. - Nov. 1994 in TEUs (20-foot equivalent units),
including transshipment cargoes switching vessels at Kobe.
Long Beach 47,594
Los Angeles 22,746