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'Where are our children?' parents ask...

...Search continues at primary school destroyed by tsunami more than 9 months ago

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi--Parents are still searching for missing children more than nine months after a tsunami inundated an Ishinomaki City primary school following the Great East Japan Earthquake in March.

Seventy-four students at the city's Okawa Primary School--about 70 percent of the student body--were killed or went missing.

The sounds of heavy machinery could be heard Friday digging into the area around the school in an effort to find four students still unaccounted for.

Miho Suzuki, 43, who is searching for her daughter, Hana, a fourth-year student, talked to Masaru Naganuma, 42, who was operating a power shovel in driving snow. She handed a cup of coffee and a bun to Naganuma, saying, "You must be tired."

Naganuma is searching for his son, Koto, a second-year student. Despite the freezing weather, he was determined to find his son and the other missing children.

Suzuki was accompanied by her husband, Yoshiaki, 49, and her mother, Kyoko Koyama, 72, when she visited the site of the school Friday. After removing wilted flowers at an altar set up by the school gate, Yoshiaki also began operating a power shovel.

Miho and Yoshiaki were working at different offices when the earthquake hit on March 11. Both of their children attended the primary school, but they were unable to visit the area until two days later.

Yoshiaki made the trip on the third day following the disaster and was horrified at the devastation. Uprooted trees stuck out of what was left of the school building and children's bodies littered the ground. Miho and Yoshiaki began their heart-wrenching search for their children.

The body of their son, Kento, a sixth-year student, was found eight days after the disaster but Hana remains missing.

Miho quit her clerical job at a hospital in May and has visited the school site every day since then. She has kept her daughter's favorite dress in the trunk of her car so she can put the dress on Hana when she finds her daughter.

"Today I'll take Hana back home," Miho tells herself every day, but so far she has returned home disappointed.

She feels frustrated as the number of parents searching for their children has dropped. Sometimes she blames herself for not going to the school to pick up her children soon after the earthquake.

In summer, when she was about to give up her search, a piano teacher who taught Hana held a concert for the girl. Thinking that many people were anxious about her daughter, she decided to continue searching during autumn and winter.

She and her husband live in a temporary housing unit, and at dinner time, she cooks meals for her children.

Meanwhile, Naganuma said: "I just want to be with my son. That is my only hope. That's how parents feel about their children."

Whenever he leaves the site after the day's search, his chest grows tight. "I have to leave him here today, though he must have felt scared on that day [without me]," he said.

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