June 1, 2011

Living in Japan, we're used to earthquakes. When one happens, everybody sort of pauses to see how big it will get. That day-March 11, 2:46 p.m.-I was in the staff room of a little school on the tiny island of Izushima, a 20-minute boat ride from Onagawa. I taught English there every Friday; the rest of the week I taught on the mainland. I was working on a phonics curriculum when it hit. My first thought was of my girlfriend, K, who was back in my apartment in Onagawa cooking me a birthday dinner. When the teachers realized this one wasn't stopping, we ran to get the kids.

Some of the children were falling, and we were picking them up. Most earthquakes last 20 or 30 seconds-this one lasted five minutes. We got out to the soccer field, and the earth started cracking apart. I heard the principal yell "Get away!" It was snowing hard and the kids were shivering in their thin tracksuits. One of the teachers ran back into the school to get an armful of jackets; others were trying to use their cellphones, but there was no reception. The school was on a hill, surrounded by trees, so we didn't know how badly the rest of the island had been affected until a pickup truck pulled up with 15 people hanging off it. "There was a tsunami," the islanders told us. "The town is gone."

We began preparing to spend the night in the school, building toilets in the gym and organizing cooking pots. I knew you could go without food for quite a while, but we only had enough water for that night and maybe one more. Survivors were streaming in. You'd hear the classroom door open and a shout of recognition, and a student would reunite with her family. Some people had been washed out to sea and swum back. They were soaking wet and freezing. I was still worried about K, but when you see people working, you lend a hand. Then you don't worry as much because you're concentrating on the task you're doing. There was no talk about family members who hadn't turned up yet-it was kind of taboo.

The kids were in surprisingly good spirits. Kids have a talent to find the good in a bad situation. No one slept that night, we were too cold and the aftershocks kept coming. The next morning we arranged chalk dispensers to spell out SOS on the soccer field, to alert helicopters. I found some old tools, like saws and a pickaxe. I'd get the kids to saw off branches and bring them to me to split. When the helicopters landed, boys ran out of the gym, yelling "Oh, so cool!" They thought the Japanese soldiers in their fatigues were awesome.

Then there were the bodies. Once most of the kids and old people were gone, the volunteer firefighters asked if the male teachers would help collect bodies. Since there was no chance of me recognizing a family member, I volunteered. I didn't want to, but I focused on other things and did what I had to do. I left on the final helicopter. The population of Izushima island had been 600. Only 200 of us made it out.

The damage was insane. As far as the eye could see-just horizon. We flew out low, and we could see bodies and the roofs of houses floating in the ocean. Once we got closer to the mainland, everything on the coast of Onagawa was gone. We landed on a baseball field near a high school. It was a relief that many of the schools, which had been built on higher ground and made to sustain large quakes, had survived. We were lucky the earthquake hit when most kids were still in school.

Everyone was just kind of in shock and zoned out. There wasn't a lot of complaining or fighting or panic. The next morning, we were each given three rice balls. I ended up giving two away to some kids I heard complaining of hunger. You were told to eat everything you got, but I didn't feel hungry; my body was in survival mode. Through the window, you could see helicopters landing, so the kids dragged chairs over and soon they were all standing in a line, peering out, asking how to say "helicopter," "army trucks," and "bulldozer" in English. They acted so bravely. I wanted to break down and cry or punch a wall from exhaustion and worry, but if a kid's not doing that, how bad would it be for a teacher to?

There was a young mother huddled with her children on the floor beside my sleeping area. The older child was two or three. I gave the mother a candy bar, and she burst into tears, bowing and crying, "Thank you! Thank you!" I was so exhausted, I passed out on my piece of cardboard, even though it was so cold. I woke to another aftershock. I sat up and realized the young mother had covered me with her own jacket while I slept.

Around 3 a.m., soldiers came into the room with a box of bananas. You'd get a mark on your hand before you received your two bananas so there was no cheating. Later, around the corner came the principal of the school I taught at in Onagawa. He said the town was basically gone but all 270 students from our school were okay. He also told me K was all right. He offered me a ride back into town, and I ran back to the classroom and grabbed my little backpack. I wasn't thinking straight, and I didn't have time to track down all the kids to say goodbye.

The road was a wasteland. Cars were flipped around like toys; a few ended up on the roof of the remains of a four-storey building-that's how high the tsunami went. A house had been transplanted onto the roof of the remains of the fire station. When we got to the evacuation centre in Onagawa, I saw K walking up the stairs. I dropped my bag and ran after her. I remember thinking I was going to fall down the stairs and sure enough, I did. Halfway down I grabbed her and fell backward, pulling her into a giant bear hug. We couldn't say anything for five minutes, it was so euphoric. It was almost like being drunk.

Her story was even more incredible. When the earthquake hit, the town's PA system announced a warning. The older people said not to worry, a tsunami had never come this far inland in their lives. So everyone relaxed. After about 15 minutes, they saw water coming down the streets, rising rapidly. Not a huge wave, like in the movies, but like a bathtub filling up. My girlfriend picked up a five-year-old and ran with him for higher ground, but he insisted he could run on his own, so she put him down. She heard the water coming and explosions as gas lines were severed. She scraped her hands and knees, climbing frantically. She said the loudest sound was houses scraping the ground as they were picked up and dragged. People everywhere were yelling, "Help!" A teenage boy pulled her the last few feet to the top of a hill, and when she looked back she realized they were the only ones from the group to make it. The whole town, including the little boy and his mother, had been swept away. Today, six weeks later, half the citizens from my Japanese hometown of Onagawa-which had a population of 10,000-are still missing.

It was really hard to leave Japan. I don't mean because the Canadian embassy in Tokyo was totally unhelpful-they were useless-but because in Japan you apologize for leaving work even when it's time to go home. I felt terribly guilty, but I knew I could do more from here. I'm going back in early May to help with relief efforts.

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