SENDAI, Japan — Once a tangled, muddy mess of vehicles, dead bodies and crushed buildings, Sendai Airport is again open for business.
Sendai resident Hideki Sato, 38, snapped a photograph and clapped his hands in excitement when the first 737 Japan Airlines passenger jet touched down at 8 a.m. Wednesday.
The jet had a message painted in red on its side: Ganbatte (Good Luck) Japan.
A crowd of travelers, Japanese and international media and a few U.S. troops were at the airport to greet the first passengers as they walked into a gleaming arrival hall. The parking area in the front of the airport was still surrounded by mountains of wrecked cars, piles of debris and shattered buildings, but there was no trace of a large U.S. military camp that had been there as recently as last week.
The Americans played a major role in clearing the runways.
“When the Americans started work here, there must have been a lot of damage,” Sato said of the U.S. military’s effort after the deadly earthquake and tsunami devastated the area March 11. “I wonder how they felt when they saw how much work was needed.”
Yuko Sato, 39, who joined her husband in welcoming the first flight, wept as she recalled driving toward the airport earlier and seeing the damage caused by the tsunami.
“I saw the damage on television but I didn’t think it was that bad,” she said. “It’s amazing that they could open the airport so fast.”
One of the U.S. soldiers at the airport Wednesday, Logistics Task Force 35 commander Lt. Col. Stacy Townsend, 43, of Dawson Springs, Ky, said the reopening of the facility was awesome.
“It is great to see how the airport has changed from the time we got here to now,” he said. “There was so much destruction and debris. To see it back functioning like this is just incredible.”
Army Sgt. Derric Byrd, 25, of Cocoa Beach, Fla, who helped clear the airport but who has moved with other troops to the nearby town of Ishinomaki, said the military had done a lot of work to get the terminal back into shape.
“We ended up cleaning 10 rooms in the area where the baggage guys work,” he said. “In one room you couldn’t even walk in. There were cabinets of office stuff all over the place and papers and books stuck in the mud.”
Army Staff Sgt. Shaun Clark, 34, of Guam said he was amazed it had reopened so fast.
“That’s a really big step,” he said. “It was like something out of a horrible nightmare.”
One of the first passengers to disembark was Doctors Without Borders volunteer Stobdan Kalon, 39, of India.
Kalon said he got a good view of the destruction surrounding the airport as the plane came in to land.
“It was an unsure feeling to see all those broken cars and damaged buildings around the airport,” he said. “You can really get a sense of what happened here. It is a good feeling that things are starting to return to normal.”
Another passenger, telecommunications executive Shojiro Masubara, 49, who was in town on a business trip, said simply: “There’s more work to be done.”
Sendai-based sports trainer Takashi Matsumura, 43, who was waiting for a flight to Tokyo on Wednesday, said he’s a regular visitor to the airport and that it was only luck that he wasn’t there March 11.
“If I had parked in my regular spot, I would have been swept away,” he said.
He said he was impressed by the U.S. military’s work to get the airport reopened, but concerned that the facility might be vulnerable to future tsunamis.
“They either need to relocate it or build some protection,” he said.
Elena Sugiyama contributed to this story.