OTSUCHI, Japan: When Fujio Koshita rang the bell at Otsuchi fire station to warn the fishing village of the imminent tsunami he undoubtedly saved countless lives — but the bell also tolled for him.
Residents of Otsuchi, in northeastern Japan near the quake epicentre, vividly recall the eerie sound and salute the fireman for his sacrifice, an action they see as in keeping with age-old Japanese notions of duty and honour.
Koshita, 57, one of 28 members of the Second Otsuchi Fire Unit, rushed to his seaside station in the afternoon of March 11 after he felt the first massive jolt of the earthquake.
There, he found an electrical blackout had put the station's siren system out of action.
Amid the frantic melee in the minutes after the magnitude-9.0 tremor struck, Toru Suzuki, a 41-year-old fellow firefighter, also reached the station, but the older man waved him off.
“You go. Don't worry about me,” Koshita told Suzuki.
Koshita grabbed an old-fashioned bell, only kept in storage as a back-up for the siren, held it tight and climbed to the roof, where he started ringing it vigorously.
“It was really loud,” said Kaito Yamasaki, a 16-year-old high school student, who heard it as he ran to safety. “The fireman was brave. I'm proud of him.”
The sound echoed for several minutes across the village until the giant waves came crashing over the horizon, sweeping away the station, its watch tower, and Koshita himself.
“I think he was desperate to save as many people as possible,” Suzuki said quietly.
“Fujio was so trustworthy. He was like a Japanese of old, very scrupulous. He often talked to us about the spirit of firefighting.”
According to fellow firefighters, Koshita acted in violation of his own instructions to younger colleagues.
“Just a few days earlier, he'd told me firmly, 'Don't die. Rescuers must stay alive,'” said Akira Sasaki, 32.
“On March 11, I was busy guiding factory workers to higher ground, and I yelled to him, 'I'm sorry I can't follow you.' Koshita replied: 'It's all right. I will take care of it here'.
“He always took the lead when tsunamis occurred. It was a great loss. He taught us a lot, but there still is a lot more to learn from him.”
When the disaster struck some of the unit evacuated their fellow villagers, including elderly and handicapped people who would have been helpless on their own.
Others rushed to tsunami-resistant walls and closed all 12 water gates just before the water arrived, but the waves were so high that they broke part of the barrier and engulfed it.
Koshita was not the only member of the century-old firefighting unit who died. Seven others are dead or missing.
“We fulfilled our duty and believe our efforts mitigated the strength of the tsunami slightly and helped save some people,” said Mineo Oguni, 61, the oldest member of the crew.
As of early April, 540 people were known to have died in Otsuchi with 1,051 others missing from its 15,000 population. Nationwide, the death toll from the quake and tsunami has exceeded 12,000, with more than 15,000 people unaccounted for.
Families of the firefighters have mixed feelings.
“They are so reliable, but it's so sad,” said Kumiko Suzuki, 42, whose husband was away on the day of the catastrophe.
“If my husband had not been off duty, he would have rushed to the station,” Suzuki said. She paused, and then added: “I don't want my son to be a fireman.”
But the young survivors of the unit feel they are duty-bound to carry on the mission. After more than a quarter of its members were lost, now is not the time to quit.
“I will continue as a firefighter in honour of those who passed away,” said Yuki Kawabata, 22, the youngest crewman. “We lost our homes and property. But we still have many people to protect.”
Fireman Suzuki agrees with Kawabata.
“If we quit this job, it means we will give in to the disaster,” he said, wearing a uniform borrowed from a neighbouring unit as its own equipment has vanished.
“We don't want the lives of our colleagues to have been wasted.”
For now, they are operating from a temporary station in a run-down ironworks on a hill. Outside a piece of cardboard reads in stark red ink: “Second Otsuchi Fire Unit.”
Koshita's body has not been found.