Survivors in trauma after life-changing nightmare day

MINAMISOMA, Fukushima Pref. (Kyodo) A woman screaming as she tries to escape the approaching tsunami. Muddy waves devouring the whole community in seconds. These were the sights remembered as survivors in the tsunami-devastated cities in Fukushima Prefecture looked back on the horror.

As the Saturday morning sun burst onto the coast of Minamisoma, you could not tell the border between the sea and land as the whole town remained submerged. The occasional spots of white concrete foundations were all that remained of the houses washed away in the deadly tsunami.

Mud-soaked residents searched frantically for members of their families unaccounted for since the quake. A 40-year-old woman found the name of her parents — but not the name of her husband — on a list of evacuees posted at the municipal office. “I wish he is safe,” she said.

“The tsunami devoured all the farm fields in a moment,” said Chusei Sato, a 61-year-old farmer. On Friday, he watched as the debris-laden monster rode over an embankment several meters tall, laying siege to the area. The massive wave was about 200 meters away when he first saw it, but was approaching him at an accelerating speed.

He managed to escape unhurt by rushing up a hill, but two of his relatives are missing. On Saturday morning, he searched the area where their houses once stood, and learned the whole neighborhood had been swept away by the tsunami. All he saw were the muddy debris of destroyed houses and cars.

Akira Onoda, 74, a worker at a hospital in the city center, was trying to return home after the initial shock of the earthquake. He saw a woman rushing his way screaming, “Tsunami!” Then he saw the waves trailing her.

Onoda sped away in his car, managing to make it home. The tsunami stopped just several meters from his home.

“The house would have been destroyed if the tsunami was 10 cm higher. The coastal area has all been swept away,” he said.

An elderly care facility just in front of Onoda’s house was hit and many of its residents were killed. Others are missing.

A 38-year-old man cried out for his missing father in front of what remained of his house. The house had crumbled and the car had been turned over. Everything from the bicycle, fan and videotapes were scattered in the mud.

Of the man’s eight-member family, the 74-year-old father, who was home alone in the house, is the only one missing.

“I telephoned him right after the quake and he said, ‘It’s all scattered inside the house, but I’m all right,’ ” the man said.

As he searched through the debris, he told a neighbor he feared the worst. “I tried to find items to at least remember him by, but there was nothing.”

Neighbor Satoshi Takada, 59, pointed to a tree that remained standing.

“The house that stood next to it is gone, so is the one next to it. There is not a sign of what used to be my rice paddy. I’m at a loss as to what I can do,” he said.

“It all happened in seconds,” recalled Hideo Munakata, 62, who runs a hotel on a hill in the city of Soma to the north.

He escaped to the fifth floor of the hotel right after the quake hit. Fifteen minutes later, he looked out the window and saw seawater quickly receding — and then the sea level quickly rise to a huge swell. In an instant, a wave 8 meters tall roared inland.

“Tsunami is coming!” he shouted to the hotel guests who were outside the building.

The hotel is 15 meters above sea level. “We were saved because the hotel stood on the highest area in the neighborhood,” he said.

Just down the hill, a house was devoured by the waves, which quietly engulfed the city center, carrying with it a fishing boat that it proceeded to smash against the second floor of a submerged house.

Munakata managed to walk back to his home in the city center after 7 p.m. when the sea receded. The roads were blocked by debris, and firefighters were trying to clear a path.