Year after Japan tsunami, precious photos saved

One of many photos salvaged from debris from Japanese tsunami in Ofunato by a small group led by Satoko Kinno, as they try to help locals restore pre-tsunami memories through the restored photos.

(CBS NEWS) SENDAI, Japan -- Sunday marks one year since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

More than 15,000 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands lost their homes.

It's hard to wrap your head around just how massive the destruction zone is -- 400 miles of coastline. In some places, up to three miles inland.

Japan has many restoration projects under way -- large, and small.

And in one town, an extraordinary group of people is making sure memories are not lost, as well.

When the surging waters of the Pacific washed over Japan's northern coast, so many people lost so much.

In the town of Ofunato, tragic tales, like Keisuke Oikawa's, are common. He says he lost his father, his house, a lifetime of belongings.

Japan still recovering, a year after tsunami

Satoko Kinno gave him something precious back. Slight of build, but big of heart, she set out to restore her town's soul by restoring photographs lost in the tsunami.

When people learn their pictures have been found and cleaned and maintained, she says, "They're crying and screaming, because they are very, very happy they found their stuff and their memories. It's most important thing."

The tsunami's black waves erased nearly everything. Kinno san and her small band, seven city employees, work diligently to ensure they didn't erase all the memories, too. They put soggy, muddy photos into freezers to stop mold from growing, then gently clean them in water. Once dry, the photos are taken around to temporary housing blocks and put on display in the community center for people like Oikawa to identify and claim.

He stumbled upon a picture of his son playing baseball, he said, then discovered a whole stack of memories.

Workers find the pictures mixed in with debris, trucked to one site from all over Ofunato.

People of the town are determined to take back a little of their lives from the tsunami that took so much from them.

It's all "usually" emotional for Kino, because, she says, "when I am washing the photographies ... the photographies said 'I want to go home. And I want to go to the family."'

Wiping tears from her eyes, she explains that the photos speak to her, saying, she thinks, 'Send me home."

So far, Kinno and her staff have rescued 350,000 photos. More come in every day. She says people from all around are now bringing in their pictures. And at least one other town has started a similar project.

To see Bill Whitaker's report, click on the video in the player above.