Chapter Two: The Fire
On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns—of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos.
At first Mr. Tanimoto believes that the damage is limited to the area around him, but he climbs to get a view and realizes the extent of the destruction. A cloud of smoke, dust, and heat has arisen from the center of the city, and the wind is rapidly spreading the fire. He runs toward the center of the city in a frantic search for his wife and baby daughter, seeing hundreds of severely injured and burned people traveling in the opposite direction. As he runs, he passes ruins of buildings, where he hears people cry for help from under the rubble of wrecked houses. Mr. Tanimoto is ashamed that he is not injured as well and often asks the pardon of people whom he passes. Miraculously, he finds his wife with the baby, both unhurt, while he is running through the streets.
Mrs. Nakamura digs her three children out of the rubble of her house and discovers that they are unharmed. She gathers them up and then deposits her sewing machine—her sole means of livelihood—into a cement water tank. At a neighbor’s suggestion they head for Asano Park, an estate on the outskirts of the city designated as an evacuation area, while passing many people trapped in fallen buildings.
At the mission house, Father Kleinsorge is slightly injured, but one of the other priests, Father Schiffer, is bleeding from the head and requires immediate medical attention. While some of the other priests attempt to take the man to a doctor and dig victims out from nearby houses, Father Kleinsorge collects some of his belongings. Although his quarters are in total disarray, he finds that his papier-mâché suitcase, which contains some of his important papers and money, is completely unscratched and stands upright in the doorway. Father Kleinsorge believes God saved it from the wreckage. The other priests are unable to reach a doctor because of the fire, and so the group heads for Asano Park. Mr. Fukai, the secretary of the diocese, is unwilling to leave the mission house, and Father Kleinsorge must forcefully carry him on his back along the road. Father Kleinsorge, still weakened from diarrhea, cannot carry his burden for long, and when he stumbles, Mr. Fukai runs back into the fire, never to be seen again.
Both Dr. Sasaki and Dr. Fujii survive the blast, but Dr. Fujii is hurt and his clinic has completely collapsed, killing four nurses and his only two patients. As the fire spreads, he and many others take refuge in the river. Dr. Sasaki is one of the few doctors in all of Hiroshima who have not been killed or injured. About 10,000 wounded people crowd into and outside of his hospital, which has only 600 beds. Wearing someone else’s glasses and completely confused, Dr. Sasaki works frantically to help as many of the badly wounded patients as he can. Dr. Fujii later makes his way to his parents’ house in the suburbs. He is puzzled about what weapon could have caused such destruction.
Miss Sasaki, at the tin works factory, has been severely injured—her leg is so badly broken below the knee that she believes it has been cut off. For a long time, she is pinned below the bookcase, barely conscious, until she is finally pulled from the wreckage and put under a makeshift shelter in the company of two severely injured people.
Asano Park survives the explosion relatively intact, and serves for a time as a safe haven for many of the citizens of Hiroshima, who lay suffering in silence. Many, including Mrs. Nakamura and her children, drink river water to quell their burning thirst, and they spend the rest of the day vomiting by the riverbanks as a result. The spreading fire soon threatens the park, and the overcrowding of the riverbanks forces a number of people into the river to drown. Mr. Tanimoto leads a group of volunteers, including Father Kleinsorge, to put out the fire using clothing and buckets of water. He also finds a boat and begins ferrying people who cannot move themselves. It starts to rain and the wind increases, turning into powerful whirlwinds that knock down trees.
Mr. Tanimoto and Father Kleinsorge head back into town to get provisions for the group. Back at the park they meet Mrs. Kamai, Mr. Tanimoto’s next-door neighbor, who clutches a dead baby in her arms. She is frantically searching for her husband, a soldier; Mr. Tanimoto presumes he is dead.
The death toll statistics from Hiroshima can be difficult to comprehend by themselves. By combining statistics with first-hand accounts, Hershey personalizes the tragedy, and gives us a greater sense of what the numbers of dead and wounded mean. Hersey rarely takes the focus away from his six major figures, and through their eyes we are able to get a vivid picture of the destruction. The characters see countless homes collapsed and hear cries of “Tasukete kure!” (“Help, if you please!”) coming from under the rubble. Hersey explains everything from the bomb’s effects upon the weather to the types of burns many people suffered. Hersey also introduces compelling statistics, citing the number of people killed or injured and the reasons why many of those who died could have been saved. Nearly half of the 150 doctors in the city died instantly, and few of those who survived had access to hospitals or equipment.
Hersey chooses his statistics carefully; he does not simply record the extent of damage the same way a report from the war department might relate information. In fact, Hersey takes great pains to show his readers how the atomic bomb was uniquely devastating. In 1946, it was common for American military leaders to depict the A-bomb to the public as just another type of firebombing. Hersey, on the other hand, wants the public to appreciate exactly how the A-bomb was a horrifically efficient weapon. It destroyed buildings and burned people miles away from the center of the blast; it decimated hospitals, killed doctors, and blocked paths to safety; its destruction continued long after the original explosion as fires spread throughout the city.
Chapter Two describes the complete confusion of the citizens of Hiroshima, and emphasizes the fact that nobody has any idea what happened. While most are prepared for some kind of attack, the power of the bomb comes as a complete surprise. Various explanations are suggested: some believe that the Americans have dropped a “Molotov flower basket,” a self-scattering bomb cluster, or have sprayed gasoline across the roofs of Hiroshima’s houses in order to help the fire spread. Hersey notes that “even a theory was comforting that day.” Because President Truman did not warn the citizens of Hiroshima before the bomb was dropped, either through official channels or by dropping leaflets by plane through the city, the citizens had no idea of America’s nuclear capabilities.
Stylistically, Chapter Two showcases Hersey’s talents both as a narrative storyteller and as a journalist capable of careful observation and reportage. Even as he includes statistics about the explosion, he never takes the focus off his main characters, and as a result we are riveted by these six human stories. Because he switches the narrative from one character to the other, never lingering too long on one individual, each of the stories appears to proceed simultaneously, as if we are able to follow the progression of the events all at once.
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