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Meeting at the Kremlin with Emergencies Ministry rescuers who took part in the rescue operations in Japan

March 28, 2011, The Kremlin, Moscow

Acting on the President’s instructions, the rescuers worked in Sendai and Ishinomaki, the Japanese towns hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami. The rescue operations took place on March 15–22, 2011.

Taking part in the meeting at the Kremlin were Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, personnel from the Centre for High-Risk Rescue Operations Leader and the Emergencies Ministry’s Far East Regional Centre, and also rescuers from the Central Airborne Rescue Detachment and the Emergency Situations Ministry Department for Aviation and Air Rescue Technology.

* * *

President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev: Colleagues, friends,

I want to start by thanking you of course for the work that you did in Japan. This disaster that struck Japan is terrible, probably one of the greatest and most tragic disasters on our planet over this last decade. Tens of thousands of people have been killed or simply disappeared.

It was only natural that our country, like others, should respond to this terrible catastrophe, this ultimately global disaster, despite the fact that, as you know, not all is smooth sailing in our relations with our Japanese partners. There are issues on which our countries share very similar views, and there are also issues on which we have our differences. But in this situation our duty was simply to help our neighbours and partners, and of course it is the Emergency Situations Ministry that provides the first line of assistance. You did a worthy job.

As far as I know, our detachment, with 161 people, was the biggest of all the rescue brigades other countries sent to Japan. This in itself is clear evidence of our desire to help our neighbours, and at the same time it also demonstrates our ability to provide this kind of support. 

”Not all is smooth sailing in our relations with our Japanese partners. There are issues on which our countries share very similar views, and there are also issues on which we have our differences. But in this situation our duty was simply to help our neighbours and partners, and of course it is the Emergency Situations Ministry that provides the first line of assistance. You did a worthy job.“

spoke with the Japanese Prime Minister just a few days after the disaster struck. We had a lengthy and serious conversation. I could sense what a difficult time the Japanese authorities are going through, and at the same time I could also sense how important it was for them to receive this kind of help and support from Russia, a neighbour with whom they have a diverse range of relations, and yes, with whom there are differences too. But when the hand of friendship is extended in these kinds of circumstances it perhaps takes on even greater meaning.

I am sure that you have found friends and colleagues among the Japanese, grateful to you for the work that you performed in very difficult conditions. I also want to thank the Emergencies Ministry’s aviation department for arranging transport home for our citizens in Japan who wanted to return to Russia, seeing the way events were developing.

We were ready whatever the circumstances, and offered transport home to our citizens, and to citizens of our close neighbours, who have roots in the Russian Federation. This was important too, important for a large number of our people. Of course another vital part of the work you did was transporting cargoes of humanitarian aid to Japan. 

I therefore want to thank you once again for all of this work. I think that our team carried out its mission in worthy fashion. Conditions there were far from easy. I hope you will share some of your experiences with us, because many of us, not just myself, will be interested to hear about it. I have been in regular contact with the minister, Mr Shoigu, who has kept me updated of course on your work, the tasks before you, and the difficulties or problems you have faced.

But your experiences are of interest too to the millions of people here who have been anxiously following developments in Japan. Tremors still continue in the earthquake zone, close to Japan’s islands and our territory too. And so of course people are following events very attentively.

Once more, I thank you for your work, and I ask you to perhaps say a few words about it now.

Minister of Civil Defence, Emergencies and Disaster Relief Sergei Shoigu: Mr President, before any of the rescuers talk about what was happening there, I would like to say that our rescuers, our pilots – right after the evacuation from Libya – this crew immediately changed gears and began working the short haul Khabarovsk-Tokyo destination.

Dmitry Medvedev: Out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they say.

Sergei Shoigu: Yes. And the group you spoke about – 160 people – was truly the biggest. If we also add our pilots who were working there, as well as a Mi-26 helicopter that was working on Japanese territory at the time, then we have a total of 255 people, to be precise.

The rescuers, of course, have experience they gained from participating in other operations abroad: the Leader centre, as you recall, was involved in a major operation to clear and neutralise mines in the Salang Pass in Afghanistan; mines at the Salang Pass were cleared by this very team. They restored transport service thus reducing the travel route between Tajikistan and Afghanistan by nearly 550 kilometres.

The team members who were in Japan drove humanitarian convoys to Bosnia and Herzegovina for four years. Unfortunately, five of our rescuers died in that operation. Thus, they all have very enriching experience in working abroad.

But what was happening just now in Japan was certainly impressive, because the situation was extremely difficult. I listened to the details day and night, as we were in constant contact, but I think that they’ll do a better job of telling you about it.

Vladimir Legoshin celebrated his birthday there. We have two twin brothers in our team, Vladimir and Andrei. They were both in Japan during that time, and celebrated their birthdays. Perhaps that’s where we should begin?

Dmitry Medvedev: Mr Legoshin, could you tell us about the circumstances in which you celebrated your birthday?

Vladimir Legoshin: It was a bit dirty and a bit cold.

In the car, we were discussing our task – to focus on locating and evacuating Russian citizens – well, those who wanted to leave, of course. We were doing the same job as before: searching for survivors in the debris after the earthquake and the tsunami.

There we were seeing three catastrophes at once: two natural disasters, and one technological disaster. Of course, all of them were caused by the earthquake. In theory, we understood that this could happen, but it was the first time we actually encountered it. Overall, we had enough experience and knowledge to manage. We established good communication with local police and Japan’s interior ministry through the embassy.

I’d like to say that we received a great deal of assistance from our Embassy in Japan through Second Secretary Sergei Kulikov. We want to thank them, because they really helped us out. Naturally, we got help from our Ministry and the entire headquarters that was created there. It reacted very swiftly to all our requests: this included Rosatom, Rosgidromet, and the Healthcare Ministry; we received an immediate response to every request we made.

I have talked about most of the specifics, but the work we did there was similar to what we do in most places. Everyone knows perfectly well what it means.

Dmitry Medvedev: How was the communication with your local colleagues? Was it fine, or were there difficulties?

Vladimir Legoshin: Obviously, Japanese is a difficult language. Few people there speak English.

Dmitry Medvedev: Naturally, that makes things hard.

Vladimir Legoshin: But then there is body language that everyone knows. We also felt a great deal of gratitude from average citizens. It was hard for us to look in the eyes of people who had suffered such a tragedy. Nevertheless, it was good to see that we were working for the same cause and that the people were glad to see us come and get our help. We felt that that assistance our nation offered was not in vain. You see, it was very gratifying and made us proud of Russia. That’s actually very important.

”This is the biggest incident in human history when one disaster led to another. Humans need experience and opportunities to manage these catastrophes, because if we always start from square one, we will be defenceless.“

Dmitry Medvedev: You have touched on a very important topic, because there are always different reactions to aid from a foreign nation, even within our own nation. People ask, what is this mission for? And is there anyone left alive to save? But here, you are answering this very question.

Vladimir Legoshin: People were able to feel that they have not been abandoned.

Dmitry Medvedev: Exactly. This has very serious moral implications, that they are not abandoned, that they are receiving help from all directions. It is important not only for resolving technological challenges, but also for the emotional well-being of the survivors. After all, it is very important for people to feel that they have a future.

So were there any particular specifics in this situation?

You said that there were several overlapping catastrophes: the natural disaster, and the subsequent technological breakdown.

Vladimir Legoshin: Yes, there were some specifics. Clearly, everything was out in the open. Everyone understood that there was an accident at a nuclear plant close by. People know what radiation is. We understood that it was close to us, about 100 kilometres away from where we were based.

Then, after we moved our base to Niigata, we travelled there by highway. The nearest distance was 60 kilometres, and we understood that depending on the wind, everything could change. And indeed, the media were reporting to the people about the emissions and radiation levels, so it was generally clear.

Sergei Shoigu: We constantly used our own equipment as well.

Vladimir Legoshin: Yes, we were monitoring everything. We had various, multi-plane equipment for radiation control.

Dmitry Medvedev: Where were you living? Encampment? Tents? Or something else?

Vladimir Legoshin: In tents. We were self-reliant.

Dmitry Medvedev: Meaning that you always station autonomously?

Vladimir Legoshin: The Leader centre has some very serious facilities in this sense. We did monitoring every half hour, we were in constant contact with Atomic Energy Ministry, our Ministry and our operational headquarters, almost around the clock; we were sending all our reports there, and asking direct questions if things were unclear: we have this situation – what’s your opinion about this and that, what will the wind conditions be? We were receiving wind conditions and weather forecasts literally every three hours.

The reason this was done was to avoid a situation where the rescuers would need to be rescued – to avoid getting ourselves into some kind of trouble. Instead, we wanted to be as helpful as possible. We were taking preventive measures, and that’s how it should be. Also, I was glad that we were able to cooperate so well with everyone. Many of the people sitting here – the people who were working to clear the debris – were not always able to see this, but it was clear to everyone that we were all working together around the clock.

Sergei Shoigu: There was another complication: on the surface, you see the visible, tangible catastrophe at the nuclear power plant, but there was also an enormous number of enterprises that had been also swept away, demolished. And some of those were not harmless, either.

Dmitry Medvedev: Of course. This fact was drowned out in the talks about the potential destructive effect of the radiation, if things at the plant took a turn for the worse. But naturally, other facilities were damaged as well.

Sergei Shoigu: In addition, many pets died, and there was a threat of an epidemic outbreak. Naturally, the units’ self-sufficiency helped us a great deal to avoid this situation, because we had an independent water intake schedule, a 2-weeks nutrition stock, and all of the necessary equipment: gas sensors, radiation intensity detectors for measuring radiation levels after every shift.

Pilots, on their way in, would take air samples and immediately broadcast them to everyone concerned, including ourselves. But it’s already been said that this is the first time in history – not just for our Ministry, but overall – when a major natural disaster turned into such an enormous technological disaster. Indeed, nobody has experienced anything like this before, and perhaps that is why it doesn’t sound very good, but this was a serious, important experience for us…

Dmitry Medvedev: You know, I think there is no need for scruples; it’s true that this is the biggest incident in human history when one disaster led to another. Humans need experience and opportunities to manage these catastrophes, because if we always start from square one, we will be defenceless. That is precisely why everyone is thinking about the future of nuclear energy, nuclear power plants, where to build them, and where not to build them.

I was also thinking about it recently; naturally, it brings up many questions. These questions concern future sitting of nuclear facilities across the globe, as well as safety measures and the consequences that may result. Unfortunately, we have to learn from these situations too, and I think that’s normal. And the fact that we now have this experience is also good for our Emergencies Ministry, as well as everyone who took part in this rescue operation. How many nations were engaged?

Sergei Shoigu: Fifteen nations; there were 150 people from the United States, but we were the last to leave. In other words, everyone else had already withdrawn their forces; some did so on the second day after the announcement that there was a radiation threat, and others withdrew on the third day. We were the last to leave. Mr President, I would like to speak for one more minute, and then the rescuers can talk.

I would like to speak about the lessons. After the tsunami in Southeast Asia where, incidentally, our rescuers also worked, including our units and our hospital too, we learned a great deal. And in the years since, we have implemented a tsunami early warning system in the Far East. A very serious system we built developed together with the Russian Academy of Sciences and Rosgidromet. And in this case, it demonstrated its best colours.

Dmitry Medvedev: When all of this happened, you and I were in Khakassia at a meeting, and then we had a phone call. You told me that many people did not expect the tsunami alert system to work so efficiently and that some people were rubbing their heads, wondering whether or not it was a false alarm.

The whole system worked without a hitch; in this sense, everyone was warned in advance, and everyone acted as they were supposed to. This is very important, because we understand that our planet is not insured against such catastrophes; some parts of our territory have very high seismic activity and unfortunately, they are very dangerous in that regard. Fortunately, we do not have any nuclear energy facilities there.

In this respect, we have always adhered to very stringent criteria, and we had regulations concerning the construction of nuclear power plants in seismic areas even as far back as the Soviet era. Naturally, this played a certain part. It also showed that the system does work very well. In any case, I am satisfied. I’m glad that we created it at that particular time.

Colleagues, please, perhaps somebody else has another particular memory or lesson they want to share; or suggestions for improving the organisation of your agency or coordination with other departments? Because you were not performing this work in a vacuum; you were communicating with other departments. So please, go ahead.

To liven up our meeting, I would like to raise my glass in honour of your work and once again thank all of you for everything you did – I hope that I can say this on behalf of our Japanese colleagues and Russian citizens as well, because naturally, they also watched tensely as you worked there, and were very concerned and distressed for you.

On the other hand, this is an indicator of how we ourselves are able to deal with such situations. The very fact that you were among the first to arrive to help and the last to leave the area that suffered such a disaster shows that your agency is working well.

I want to once again express my gratitude and wish you success.


March 28, 2011, The Kremlin, Moscow