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An Olympic torch relay runner is fueled by the memory of his daughter, who died in the 2011 tsunami

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS 
                                Above, visitors take a tour of the school site, where damaged buildings still stand.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Above, visitors take a tour of the school site, where damaged buildings still stand.

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS 
                                A man offers incense at makeshift alters at the former Okawa Elementary School, where 73 children and 10 teachers died when a massive tsunami hit.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    A man offers incense at makeshift alters at the former Okawa Elementary School, where 73 children and 10 teachers died when a massive tsunami hit.

ISHINOMAKI, Japan >> When Noriyuki Suzuki runs in the Tokyo Olympic torch relay, he won’t be alone.

Every stride he takes will be in memory of his daughter, Mai, as well as 73 other students and 10 teachers from Okawa Elementary School who died in the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan 10 years ago. More than 18,000 people died in the tragedy.

The relay began today from Fukushima prefecture, the heart of the area that was hit by the disaster.

“I want to run with Mai, not just myself,” Suzuki said. “I want to run with all the children here.”

Since the March 11, 2011, disaster, Suzuki has spoken with people who have visited the old school in northeastern Miyagi prefecture, talking about the importance of having an evacuation plan — and following it.

He believes his daughter, who was 12 years old at the time, and the others would still be alive had teachers led the students away from the tsunami, and not unknowingly toward it.

“Disasters will absolutely happen, so things will break,” Suzuki said. “But people can be saved.”

Suzuki found his daughter two days after the disaster. He saw a shoe protruding from the soil and started digging with his bare hands. As he dug in the cold, he unearthed the entire shoe with his daughter’s name written on the back.

“Our Mai wore glasses,” he explained. “When I found her, she was wearing her glasses. I thought if I shook her, she would wake up. ‘Mai, Mai,’ I said while tapping her cheeks and shaking her body. But she wouldn’t wake up.”

Suzuki continued to recount his personal tragedy in a frank way that no parent should ever have to. He recalled coaching the school’s basketball team and running around with Mai and her teammates.

“When I looked closely, there was dirt in her nose and ears,” he said. “It can only be called cruel. I can’t put into words how I felt at that time.”

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