SENDAI, Japan -- Japanese and U.S. military ships and helicopters trolled Japan's tsunami-ravaged coastline looking for bodies Friday, part of an all-out search that could be the last chance to find those swept out to sea nearly three weeks ago.
More than 16,000 are still missing after the disaster, which officials fear may have killed 25,000 people. The 9.0 earthquake and tsunami also destroyed a nuclear plant that continues to leak radiation despite frantic efforts to control it.
Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan sounded a resolute note Friday, promising to win the battle against the overheating plant even as atomic safety officials have raised questions about the accuracy of radiation measurements there. Residents who live within 12 miles of the plant have been forced to leave, though many have been sneaking back to check on their homes.
On the outskirts of Sendai, near the Japanese military's Kasuminome air base, a constant stream of helicopters roared overhead, shuttling to and from the more remote coastal regions. Planes and boats were dispatched from other bases near the city.
Altogether, 25,000 soldiers, 120 helicopters, and 65 ships will continue searching through Sunday. If U.S. forces spot bodies, they will point them out to the Japanese military rather than try to retrieve them. So far, more than 11,700 deaths have been confirmed.
"Unfortunately we've come across remains over the scope of our mission, so it may be more likely than you think" to find bodies at sea so long after the disaster, said U.S. Navy Lt. Anthony Falvo.
Some may have sunk and just now be resurfacing. Others might never be found. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 37,000 of the 164,000 people who died in Indonesia simply disappeared, their bodies presumably washed out to sea.
The Japanese military stopped short of saying the search would end for good after Sunday. The search includes places that were submerged or remain underwater, along with the mouths of major rivers and the ocean as far as 12 miles from shore.
Police officers have also been searching for bodies in decimated towns inland, but in some cases their efforts have been complicated or even stymied by dangerous levels of radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant 140 miles northeast of Tokyo.