Hiroshima, Japan, Landslides Kill At Least 27, Including Children; Firefighter Dies While Rescuing Victims

August 20, 2014

At least 27 people have been confirmed dead after a series of landslides struck Hiroshima, Japan, in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday. Among the dead is a Hiroshima firefighter who was rescuing some of the hundreds of people reportedly trapped or buried by mud and debris.

The landslides happened in the city's Asaminami and Asakita wards between 3:20 and 4 a.m. local time Wednesday. Shortly before 3 p.m. local time, at least 27 people had been confirmed dead and 10 others missing, according to public broadcaster NHK, citing local police sources. Among the dead are a 77-year-old woman and a 2-year-old boy.

A firefighter with the Hiroshima Fire Department died when sediment buried him while he worked to rescue victims, according to another NHK report.

The Japanese government's Fire and Disaster Management Agency said the 53-year-old firefighter died after saving five people from a collapsed residential building.

The broadcast organization also pinpointed at least 20 locations in Hiroshima city where people were stranded or trapped. Some 65,000 residents have been advised to evacuate because of the continued risk of floods and landslides. Schools have been turned into shelters for evacuees, according to the city government's website.

Above: "Danger in Yagi [a Hiroshima neighborhood]. Are the people in Yagi OK?"

At least 3 landslides struck the city, burying at least 12 people alive, according to Fuji TV. The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's leading newspapers, says an 11-year-old boy and a 2-year-old boy were in their home in the Yagi residential district when the mud slammed into it. Both children were pulled from the muck in a state of cardiac arrest; both later died, according to NHK.

Live broadcasts on Japan's Fuji TV showed hillside neighborhoods sliced apart by several narrow rivers of mud, fallen trees and large boulders. Several houses and multi-family residences appeared heavily damaged or destroyed.

One Fuji TV report showed a rescue helicopter hovering over the devastation. The broadcaster said some areas were inaccessible to emergency vehicles, so the helicopter was used to lower rescuers into the area by rope.

NHK, citing fire and rescue officials, said at least 200 calls for assistance had been made by midday Wednesday local time. The calls included people trapped in mud and debris, as well as at least one person who could not escape due to "bad legs."

Japan's Self-Defense Forces were dispatched to help in the rescue efforts. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cut short a golf vacation and returned to Tokyo to focus on the disaster, according to the Japan Times.

The Japan Meteorological Agency recorded 8.03 inches of rain in three hours in Asakita Ward, more than doubling the previous all-time 3-hour rainfall record at that site. Nearly 4 inches fell in one hour and over 9 inches in 24 hours, also the largest such rainfall amounts since records began for that location in 1976.

The landslides resulted from one of several localized thunderstorms that produced torrential downpours across western Japan Wednesday morning. At least one man was reportedly swept into a swollen river in Fukuoka Prefecture, according to NHK.

Wednesday morning's rain added to what's been a very wet summer for western and central Japan. A landslide in Tokushima Prefecture killed at least one person earlier this month. In July, a boy was killed and dozens were hurt in Nagano Prefecture when rains from Tropical Storm Neoguri triggered a landslide.

(MORE: Unusually Cold Weather Hits Europe)

In Kochi Prefecture, over 80 inches of rain have fallen this month in some areas, much of it from Tropical Storm Nakri and Typhoon Halong. The city of Kochi, where weather records have been kept since 1886, broke its all-time single-month rainfall record Monday, when its month-to-date rainfall total since Aug. 1 surpassed 56 inches.

Landslides a Common Threat in Japan

Landslides are a constant risk in mountainous, crowded Japan, where many homes are built on or near steep slopes. Torrential rains in the early morning apparently caused slopes to collapse in an area where many of the buildings were newly constructed.

Damage from land and mudslides has increased over the past few decades due to more frequent heavy rains, despite extensive work on stabilizing slopes. In the past decade there have been nearly 1,200 landslides a year, according to the land ministry, up from an average of about 770 a year in the previous decade.

In October last year, multiple mudslides on Izu-Oshima, an island south of Tokyo, killed 35 people, four of whose bodies were never recovered. Those slides followed a typhoon that dumped a record 824 millimeters (more than 32 inches) of rain in a single day.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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