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Santa Clarita firefighters aid in Japan relief

Disaster: Two locals assist in town destroyed by tsunami

Posted: March 29, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 29, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Firefighter paramedic Brian Clayton, left, and Capt. Doug LaCount of Los Angeles County Fire Station 107 in Canyon Country recount on Monday their experiences with a rescue mission in Japan. They assisted rescue efforts in Ofunato after the earthquake and tsunami struck.

As Santa Clarita Valley rescuers searched for survivors in what was left of Ofunato, Japan, after the March 11 earthquake and resulting tsunami, the ground shook again.

Each aftershock brought with it the possibility a second tsunami could strike along the country’s northern coast and further ravage the port city that was partially swept away days before.

“I was looking at mountainsides and hillsides where we could run to,” Capt. Doug LaCount, 44, said Monday inside Fire Station 107 in Canyon Country.

LaCount and firefighter paramedic Brian Clayton, 41, of Saugus, returned home March 18 with members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department California Task Force 2 after spending a week in Japan.

For days, task force members searched from 4 a.m. to sunset in Ofunato searching for survivors in homes, boats, cars and piles of debris.

They found none, LaCount said.

One mile inland, rescuers found debris piles 20 feet tall. An entire second story remained intact after it had been swept by the water’s current, LaCount said.

The bottom floor, however, was gone.

“That water is unforgiving,” LaCount said. “If you could, imagine a wave of water coming through Santa Clarita, a swath of water the size of the Mississippi River. It’s devastating.”  

LaCount, who also traveled to Haiti in the wake of its disastrous earthquake, said many more people could have died if the tsunami struck without warning.

“We expected to see bodies right and left,” LaCount said. “You have to credit Japanese disaster preparedness. It’s nothing compared to what it could have been.”

While LaCount and Clayton were away, their families worried they would be exposed to dangerous levels of nuclear radiation.

Ofunato is about 100 miles north of the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant that was crippled by the tsunami. Residents closest to the plant were evacuated as radioactive particles were released from the plant, but none from Ofunato, he said.

Clayton said they were a safe distance away from the power plant and radiation levels in their area did not appear dangerous. Before flying back to California, they were also examined for radiation at Misawa Air Base, he said.

“(Radiation) was in the back of our minds, but it didn’t affect our job there,” Clayton said. “It was a bigger concern to our families, and everyone back home than it was to us. We were confident in our radiation monitors.”

One question, Clayton said, popped into his mind moments before landing at Los Angeles International Airport last week: what if a similar-sized tsunami struck Southern California?

Clayton said he’s getting his family prepared in case of a similar emergency.

“Flying into L.A., we were comparing the geographical features of Japan and how a tsunami could affect things here,” Clayton said. “I can only imagine what would happen if a 50-to-60 foot wall of water struck.”


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