© AP/Kyoda News
Tokyo, Japan -- Masao Yoshida, the man who led the life-risking battle at Japan's crippled nuclear power plant when it was spiraling into meltdowns, died Tuesday of cancer of the esophagus. He was 58.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. spokesman Yoshimi Hitosugi said Yoshida died at a Tokyo hospital. TEPCO officials said his illness was not related to radiation exposure.
Yoshida led efforts to stabilize the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami knocked out its power and cooling systems, causing triple meltdowns and massive radiation leaks.
Recalling the first few days when the three reactors suffered meltdowns in succession, Yoshida later said: "There were several instances when I thought we were all going to die here. I feared the plant was getting out of control and we would be finished."
Yoshida was an outspoken, tall man with a loud voice who wasn't afraid of talking back to higher-ups and was known to his workers as a caring figure. Even then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who was extremely frustrated by TEPCO's initial lack of information and slow handling, said after meeting him that Yoshida could be trusted.
On March 12, after Unit 1 reactor building exploded following a meltdown, Yoshida kept pumping in sea water into the reactor to cool it, ignoring an order from the TEPCO headquarters to stop doing so as Kan feared a possibility of sea water triggering a fission chain reaction. Yoshida was initially reprimanded for disobeying the order from above, but later praised for his judgment that eventually helped keep the reactor from turning worse.
"I bow deeply in respect to his leadership and decisiveness," Kan said in his Twitter entry Tuesday.