Children in Onagawa safe

Editor’s note: Below are two emails from Mike Luzia, an English teacher in Onagawa, Japan who experienced the earthquake and tsunami that destroyed Onagawa. Luzia was in email contact with Glenn Hicks news director at Mountain FM, a local radio station.

For background on Nelson’s connection with Onagawa, read this story. There are several origami crane folding sessions happening in Nelson. See the Events Calendar for dates, times and locations.

To find just the origami events, look in the upper-right hand corner for the word “Keyword Filter.” Click that button and then look for the word “origami.” Click the box beside that word and then click the “Filter” button. The calendar will then show you all the origami events listed so far.

Two children from Onagawa during a visit to Nelson. The latest report is most of, if not all, the children in Onagawa are safe. Photo submitted.

First off, I can say that while I haven’t personally seen the faces of every student who went to Nelson, I have confirmed that they are all safe. There are 3 elementary schools and 2 high schools in Onagawa, and they are all built in high areas, beyond the reach of the tsunami. As the earthquake hit around 2:40 pm on Friday, and the tsunami came 30-40 mins later, they were at school at the time.

As for the residents of Onagawa, of the 10,000, there are still over 5,000 unnacounted for. It’s terrible. There is literally nothing left of Onagawa. While the Nelson homestay kids are accounted for, many of them still have no idea of the whereabouts of their parents/family.

At the time of the earthquake, I was teaching at Izushima, a small island in Onagawa. There is a combined junior high school and elementary there. The elementary school has 17 students, and the junior high has 11. One of the junior high students went to Nelson last year, Tomihiro “Tommy” Abe. The island has a population of 600, separated into two small towns on the coast of the island.

When the earthquake hit, I was in the staff room with the teachers. We ran to get the students and get them outside. The earthquake shook for a full 5 minutes. The shaking was so strong that it was hard to stand. We waited out in the open, on the school soccer field/track. Small cracks started to open in the ground… we moved the students away from the cracked areas and continued to wait.

Finally the shaking stopped. The kids all just had track suits on, and it was starting to snow. Aftershocks continued, about one every minute for 10 seconds or so, some strong, some weak. The wind was starting to pick up and the kids were freezing so 2 of the teachers ran back into the school to grab the kids jackets. We continued to wait, as going back inside wasn’t safe yet.

After about 40 minutes (aftershocks still continuing) of waiting in the snow, a truck with some of the town residents came to the school. They said the tsunami had hit, and there was nothing left of the town. The school is situated on the highest point of the island, surrounded by trees, so we had no idea. We had to get the kids out of the cold so we moved them into the school gym, and told them to be ready to run. Town residents started coming in, everyone gathering in the gym. The school is the official evacuation center of the island, so there were some emergency supplies for us to use, but not nearly enough blankets.

After an hour or so we knew we were going to be staying in the gym overnight, so we sent the junior high kids and some teachers to go gather wood to make fires. By nightfall there were over 100 town residents in the gym. It snowed about 10 cm that night, and we had no heat in the gym. The food was some rice left over from the school lunch, and it wasn’t enough, so only the children and some old people got to eat. It was too cold for most of us to sleep that night.

The principal of the school tried to use the emergency satellite phone to contact people all night, but no luck. The next day, he managed to contact the board of education in Sendai, and relayed information about the situation on Izushima.

I tried to keep the children busy that day gathering/cutting wood. Most of them had no idea where their parents/family were. We wrote SOS – need food/water on the soccer field.

Around 11 am, some of the volunteer firefighters of the island started to gather the bodies, and asked for help. I volunteered, as there was zero chance for me to find a family member. We laid out tarps and put the bodies in the science room of the school. We gathered around 60.

Evacuation and food at last

Around 12:30 pm, a search/rescue helicopter landed, and told us all we had to evacuate to Ishinomaki. Soon some big passenger helicopters arrived and picked us up 30 people at a time. First the sick, the children, the old people, the women, and last the men. It took about 4 hrs, but finally we were evacuated to Ishinomaki.

A view of Sendai, Japan, near Onagawa, after the earthquake. This photo was taken from a U.S. Navy helicopter. Photo source: Official U.S. Navy Imagery, Flickr, Creative Commons.

As I flew over Onagawa, I looked out the window and saw ruins and bodies everywhere. There were only the skeletal remains of a few buildings. I saw boats that were 2-3 km inland, pushed by the tsunami, and houses that were over 5 km out in sea. I kept thinking about my girlfriend. She was in my apartment in Onagawa at the time of the earthquake. It’s only about 500 m from the sea, at sea level. I knew if she didn’t get out then she was dead for sure. Of the 600 people of the island, we got about 200 out. I was told that there were only 3 houses left standing on the island.

We landed at a baseball field in Onagawa and there were Japanese self-defense forces everywhere. We were taken by hum-vee and transport trucks to Shogyo High school, an evacuation center. It’s about 10 km or so from the sea, so it was still standing, but the tsunami had still reached the first floor, flooding the building and the rice fields around it.

Each classroom became a living quarters. Our classroom has 46 people in it… and it was designed for classes of 30. The school had no blankets, so we were each given a piece of cardboard to sleep on. That night we each got 1 rice ball, my first food since the earthquake/tsunami. I didn’t sleep that night either. We had a heater but we were trying to conserve kerosene as we only had 10 litres.

The next day we were given 3 rice balls each. I had one in the morning, and saved 2. Later in the day many kids were complaining of hunger, so I gave my remaining 2 to a group of kids to divide up. There was no electricity, water, and no cell phone reception.

We had an emergency radio but there was no information about our area, as we were hit the hardest and there was no way to get information about us. To go to the bathroom, we had to use a piece of newspaper and put it in a plastic bag. Luckily, the Japanese SDF brought us enough drinking water.

I did my best to keep the kids busy that day, helping sweep the dirt/mud tracked in by the refugees. People came from all over Ishinomaki. I saw many people crying, both tears of happiness as they were told their loved ones were safe, and tears of grief as they were told their loved ones were confirmed dead. Onagawa was about 20 km by road. The roads were all flooded, and impassable by car.

I wanted to get back to look for my girlfriend, and decided to go straight over the mountains, but my colleagues stopped me. Looking back on it, I’m glad they did.

Many of the island school teachers had family/relatives in Ishinomaki. One of them walked back to her house and found her family was safe, and also that the family car was in usable condition. She managed to drive it back to the high school, going around all the flooded areas and ruins. She brought back some blankets, which we gave to the children/elderly. I didn’t sleep much that night either.

The next day we decided to use the car and go looking for food. Some local supermarkets had been opened by the Japanese SDF and were doing rationing to people who could make it there. We got as much food as we could (mostly crackers and cookies – that’s all they had) and also took any cardboard and newspaper we could find, to use as bedding.

End of the first email

Order and looting

Sunday afternoon. A teacher had brought her car back from her house, and we were using it to go find food. Some supermarkets were open, doing rationing. We lined up with the other hundreds of people. Ishinomaki was full of smoke, as there was a gas explosion in an area on the coast, and the whole neighborhood was burning. That area was about 7-8 km from us though, so we were ok.

The damage was much less inland than on the coast. Even though we were almost 10 km inland, the tsunami had flooded the first floor of every house, with the water going up to about 5-6 feet. On the coast, the water went up to the roof of a 4-story building.

At the supermarket/rationing center, we were allowed to buy 5 items each. The staff had filled boxes with various canned goods, cup noodles, and juices, each 100 yen. Since we had to buy food for about 200 people, we spent the day lining up over and over again, buying 5 items at a time.

There was still no power, so when nightfall came the store announced that they were finished for the day. I was amazed at the Japanese peoples’ calmness. I knew they still had food left inside the supermarket, and I knew what we had bought wasn’t enough for everyone, but everyone lining up still obeyed the rules and went home.

On our way back to the school we drove a little closer to the coast to look for another fellow teacher’s house. The areas here were devastated, but the Japanese SDF [Self Defense Forces, the Japanese military] had already been busy working clearing the roads with bulldozers.

We couldn’t make it to the teacher’s house, but we saw that people here hadn’t been obeying the rules. Some convenience stores and almost all the vending machines we saw were looted. I don’t blame them. Without a car, there was no way to get to the rationing centers, and food/water is more precious than gold at times like this.

Waiting for word from his girlfriend

While driving back, we found an area that had cell phone reception. I receieved 27 messages on my phone from my family and friends, asking if I was alright. But still no message from my girlfriend. The worry was making me sick. I didn’t have the time or the batteries to reply to everyone, so I replied to my mom, my best friend in Japan, and sent a quick message to my girlfriend, saying I was safe and was at Shogyo high school in Ishinomaki.

We came back to the high school/evacuation center. Because the island people weren’t the only ones there, and we didn’t bring enough food back for everyone, we had to sneak in what we brought, and divide it among the children, the sick, and the old people of the island.

As I was giving a bag of crackers and cookes to a mother, explaining that it was only for the children, she burst into tears, thanking me over and over again. Even though everyone was hungry, getting to the point of starving, everyone still thought of the children first. That night I was so exhausted that I passed out on my piece of cardboard, even though it was cold as hell. I woke up around 1 am to the sound of a helicopter outside. I realized that I had a blanket on me, or what I thought was a blanket. Actually it was the crying mother’s jacket… she must have put it on me while I was asleep, as a gesture of thanks.

The helicopter outside was the Japanese SDF, bringing water, blankets, and bananas for everyone. In our room we got 1 blanket for every 3 people, and 2 bananas each. I ate half of a banana, and gave my other banana to the mother who had given me her jacket.

The next morning, I checked my cell but there was still no reception at the high school, so still no news of my gf.

The teachers of the school convened to talk about our plan. One of the teachers joked that since it was Monday morning, and we were at a school anyways, how about having some classes for the students. There was about 3 seconds of stunned silence then we all burst into laughter. The principal said that living in these conditions and persevering through a situation like this was a learning experience for everyone, including the children.

News of the girlfriend

While talking, we had a surprise. The principal of Onagawa First Junior High came walking down the hall. He was the first person from Onagawa that I had seen. He informed us that all of the Onagawa students were safe and sound. When asked how he got here, he said that the SDF had just cleared the road to Ishinomaki, and he drove here, bringing a few island residents who were on the mainland at the time of the quake/tsunami.

One of the older men who came with him from Onagawa saw me and said, “You’re Mike, right? You have a girlfriend in Onagawa? Don’t worry, she’s safe.” When he said that, my heart leaped into my throat. 3 days and 3 nights of worrying, not knowing if she was alive or dead, all these emotions surged to the surface.

I hugged the man and thanked him over and over.

The principal said that he needed to get back to Onagawa and asked if anyone wanted a ride. I leapt at the opportunity. I had no idea when/if I would be back to the high school, so I said goodbye and good luck to the teachers/students.

As we were driving back to Onagawa, the damage was unbelievable. I had been living in Onagawa for 2.5 years, and had driven that road countless times, but now it was a wasteland. I saw cars that were flipped around like toys. A few even ended up on the roof of the remains of a 4-story building. A car on the roof of a 4-story building. That’s how high the tsunami went. I saw a house that had been transplanted onto the roof of the remains of the fire station. It was absurd, like a dream, or more like a nightmare. I couldn’t believe that anyone had survived.

As we drove through the town, I snapped a few pictures with my camera, and we stopped to talk to a few survivors who were poking around the remains of their homes, most looking for supplies, some looking for lost loved ones.

We got to Onagawa Second elementary school, another evacuation center. In my haste to get back to Onagawa, I forgot to ask the old man where he had seen my girlfriend. When I entered the staff room, I was immediately hugged by many of the teachers… even though I’m not a teacher at that school, and I don’t know them that well.

Even if you don’t know someone well though, it’s still a relief to know that they’re alive. One teacher told me right away that my girlfriend was here, but she had gone out with another teacher to look for the remains of my apartment, and that she should be back soon.

I was ecstatic. I was talking with some of the other teachers/students, when suddenly I saw my girlfriend walking up the stairs.

My heart stopped.

I dropped my bag, and ran down the stairs, calling her name. I think I slipped the last few steps, and ended up hugging her before falling on my ass on the stairs. We just hugged and cried for about a minute. We were both too emotional to speak.

When we could finally speak, we exchanged stories. Here is hers.

The girlfriend’s story

When the earthquake hit, she was in my apartment in Onagawa, about 500m from the ocean. The shaking was so strong that all of the plates came flying out of the cupboards, the stove fell over, and even the fridge moved about 1m.

She was wearing her pajamas at the time, doing her makeup. She grabbed her jacket and shoes and ran out the door. There is a small playground beside the apartment, which is the designated evacuation area during earthquakes. About 20 other people from the neighborhood had gathered there, some with children. Snow was falling.

The ground was still shaking, so they waited in the cold for it to stop. The town’s PA system announced a tsunami warning. The older people in the playground said to not worry, that a tsunami had never come this far inland during their lives. So everyone relaxed, and waited until it was safe to go back inside.

After about 15 minutes, they saw water coming down the streets, and it was rising rapidly. Not a huge wave like in the movies, but rather like a bathtub filling up. Many of the older people ran back to their houses, maybe to gather precious belongings.

The water continued to rise. When it was about 50 m away, someone said that they had to get out of there. So they started running away from the water. The water started to rise more rapidly.

My gf ran with the group. She picked up a small child who was having a hard time running and carried him. The boy insisted that he was fine and could run, so my gf put him back down.

She says she doesn’t remember much, just that she ran.

Because the road was flat and at sea level, most of the people started to climb the hillside, covered in trees and bushes. My gf scraped her hands and knees, climbing frantically. She heard the water coming, and could hear explosions as gas lines were severed.

She said the loudest sound was houses scraping the ground as they were picked up and dragged, and people everywhere yelling, “Help!!!” At the top of the hill, there was a young male high school student helping the people up the hill. He helped my girlfriend. My gf got to the top and looked back, and could only see water, houses and people flowing by. She was the last one to make it, and there were only 2 other people at the top of the hill.

Of the group of 20, all the other people had been washed away. The water was over 10m high at this point.

Suddenly from below a young woman that had been running with them surfaced from the water. The high school boy leapt down to help, dragging her out of the water. She had lost her shoes in the water and her feet were torn up and bloody from climbing the hill. But she was alive. The water continued to rise.

The hill was actually a ridgeline connecting to the nearby town sports ground/gym. The four of them decided to try to get to higher ground, so they moved along the ridgeline. The ground continued to shake and snow continued to fall.

By nightfall they got to the town gym, safe from the tsunami as it’s situated on a small mountain. Many other town residents were there. Some, who had evacuated immediately, had even managed to get there by car before the water came. Of course there was no power/water. They prepared to stay the night at the gym. They had nothing there, not even cardboard to sleep on.

Some of the residents brought blankets with them when they fled, and these went to the people who needed them most, namely children and the elderly. My gf met a friend of mine, Rob Lehne, another ALT in Onagawa, from Seattle, Washington. He helped her a lot over the next couple days, and I owe him big time for that.

The next day my girlfriend spent helping, shoveling snow. In the morning, a small bowl of soup was given out to the children only. There was no water for anyone. Helicopters were flying everywhere overhead, picking up survivors and bringing them to the town gym. Every time they came, my gf would ask the pilots if they had any news of Izushima, the island I was on. Every time, they had no news, as they weren’t assigned to fly there.

The next day my gf and another teacher went out into the ruins of Onagawa. My apartment, or the spot where it was, was fairly close, so she went back there. There was nothing left of my apartment, or my car that had been parked beside it. While looking around, she found my vacuum cleaner on the train tracks, about 30 m away, and my Canadian flag, which was on the second floor of the remains of another apartment building about 200 m away.

She took the flag for me, and I still have it in my bag. It’s covered in mud and smells like the ocean, but I’m still happy to have it.

The comforts of home

The next morning was the morning that we reunited. After seeing my girlfriend, we went to Onagawa First Junior high, which hadn’t been damaged by the tsunami as it’s high up on a hill. The students were all fine. I met the teachers too and they were fine, although many lost their homes and loved ones.

The other Onagawa ALT, Rob, still hadn’t been able to contact his girlfriend in Sendai, so he decided to try to drive to Sendai. He offered us a ride, and we took it. I found my boss at the local elementary school and told him I was going to Sendai.

We left that morning and a normally 2 hr drive took almost 5 hrs, as we came to many impassable roads due to flooding and debris. We finally got to Sendai and found Rob’s gf, safe and sound.

Power to some parts of Sendai had been restored. From the car, my gf and I saw some vending machines that glowed warmly, as if nothing was amiss. We almost cried seeing something so normal. After over 72 hours of seeing scenes of despair and destruction, it was almost too much to see something that ordinary. After meeting Rob’s gf, we said goodbye there as my gf and I wanted to see how her apartment fared, and Rob and his gf wanted to go back to their own place.

Remarkably, my gf’s apartment was almost untouched. Her rack of shoes had fallen over, and some books were on the floor, but other than that there was no damage.

Japan’s ability to build earthquake-proof buildings is amazing, but I don’t think there is any way to make a building tsunami-proof.

More remarkable than the lack of damage to the building was the fact that the power was on and the water was running. We washed our faces and brushed our teeth for the first time in 4 days, and changed our clothes. I realized I hadn’t taken my jacket off even one time in over 3 full days.

Because of the cold temperature and the lack of showers and blankets, there had been no need to take it off at all. Also, she had food left in her refrigerator, so we ate a meal that night.

I managed to call my mom in Abbotsford and talk to her for the first time. She was crying she was so happy.

We slept in a bed for the first time since the quake that night, warm and with full bellies. The next day, we decided to go buy some more food, as we didn’t have much left in the apartment. In Sendai, even though there was very little damage, the supermarkets were still doing rationing.

While lining up, we got a call from a friend in Okayama, which is a fair sized city about 1500 km to the southwest. She was worried about us and wanted us to come stay with her for awhile. She had arranged travel and accomodation for us already. Due to the nuclear reactor situation in Fukushima, we decided that it wasn’t a bad idea to go to Okayama for a bit. There were no buses and trains out of Sendai so we had to take a chartered taxi to Yamagata, the prefecture to the west, and then to Niigata station, where we could ride a shinkansen (bullet train) to Okayama.

Surreal experience

In Okayama, it was unbelievable. There was zero influence of the earthquake/tsunami. My friend there arranged for my gf and I to stay at a vacant apartment near the station that her family owned. So that’s where we’ve been for the last couple days. I’ve been trying to contact both my contracting organization, to find out if I have a job/place to live, and the Canadian embassy in Tokyo, to find out if I have a job.

No matter how hard I try though, my calls keep getting redirected to the foreign affairs section in Ottawa, where they know nothing and are unable to answer any questions about what they’re doing to help the Canadians in Japan now. I wrote an email to the official emergency email address of foreign affairs, explaining my situation and that I needed a passport as mine was lost in the tsunami, and that I have nothing but the clothes on my back.

They sent back a form letter explaining that Canadians living in Japan needed to go through all the official channels to get a passport, and that I need a birth certificate, two photos, my previous passport etc etc, all of which is somewhere out in the sea now. It’s been really frustrating dealing with them, as they act like nothing has happened in Japan, and there’s nothing to worry about.

They’re not the ones who had to live through the quake and the tsunami.

I’ve decided to go to Tokyo and talk with someone in person, so I’m on the train there now, using my gf’s laptop. Actually I arrive in about 10 minutes. I have to get all this stuff straightened out.

Share this story

Sorry for the long email and if there are any typos. Feel free to pass my story around to anyone that wants to hear it. When I get back to Canada I want to do my best to get this story out to as many people as possible, and to raise as many funds as possible for the people of Onagawa. Once I get back there I’ll give my contact info out, but as things stand now I already have over 300 emails to answer and my cell is ringing off the hook so I can’t afford to be talking to the press until I get my passport and ticket figured out.

Please pass this story on to any newspapers/anyone who is interested. Also, I noticed one big mistake in my first email to you. When I said: “We landed at a baseball field in Onagawa and there were Japanese self-defense forces everywhere.” Actually it was Ishinomaki that we landed in. I didn’t go to Onagawa until Monday morning.

Mike Luzia

One thought on “Children in Onagawa safe

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