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Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Amazing Story of a Portland Activist Who Survived Japan's Tsunami

Posted by Sarah Mirk on Thu, Mar 17, 2011 at 4:56 PM

Portlander Mike XVX left town on March 7th, bound for Japan and what was supposed to be a three week trip with environmental activist group Sea Shepherd. The plan was for Mike and five other activists to meet up in Otsuchi, a coastal city in Northeastern Japan, and document the Dall's porpoise slaughter, which kills about 40,000 porpoises annually. But on their second day in the city, the group was standing out in the harbor when the 9.0 earthquake struck. The group didn't speak Japanese, didn't know the geography of the area, and only had a day's worth of food and water stashed in their rental cars.

Amazingly, Mike lived to tell the story about what happened next. Read his first-person account of the tsunami below the cut.

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UPDATE: There's going to be a candlelight vigil and fundraiser for Mercy Corp's work in Japan on Friday, March 18th, from 6-8pm in Pioneer Square. Info here.

Mike's story, abridged and edited somewhat, from an interview:

"It shook for well over a minute.

At first it started out very light and we just realized an earthquake was happening, but then it shook to the point where we had to hold onto our cars not to fall over. We were laughing at the time, kind of out of nervousness. But immediately after the shaking stopped, we heard the tsunami warning. It was an incredibly loud siren in the center of town.

We'd only been there a few days, but we knew of a hill a little ways away and decided to head there. There were people everywhere in the town and the water mains had busted so the streets were flooded. The town is encircled with a big concrete tsunami wall about 10 or 15 feet thick, which have these big solid steel gates. We drove through the gates just as they were closing.

We drove up the hill as high as we could, maybe 100 feet above sea level. Up at the summit, there was a fire crew and some people from the town, but not many.

We looked out across the bay and realized that half the town was already underwater. How a tsunami works is it floods in, then sucks all the water back out. So when we looked out, there were completely intact buildings floating past us. Then, once the water drained, there was absolutely no water left in the bay, you could see the beach all the way out. Then a few minutes later, this big wave came in. It was just a jet black wave. It just roared past everything and destroyed every building it came in contact with. For 24 hours, the sea kept flooding up the side of the cliff and pulling everything back out again.

After a while of being up on the hill, we walked back down to see if we could drive out of town in our rental cars. But when we got down to the water line, everything covered in cars, houses, downed power lines. Everything from the city was just destroyed. When we got to the road, the road was gone and in its place was just a river of flowing mud, pulling along houses and anything in its path. It roared like a river, but it had the raw weight of mud.

So we realized we couldn't pass the road and then we looked around and realized that the water was coming back in again. We started running as hard as we could back up the hill, and when we turned around the water had completely overtaken where we were standing.

Finally, hours later, we walked down to the shore.

There's about 200 houses in this little cove and when we walked back down, there was maybe 1 or 2 still standing. The entire village was just rubble. We found a few bodies, some just washed up on the beach. We thought of taking photos to help the police, but they were so covered in debris that we couldn't see what they looked like at all and, out of respect, didn't want to touch them.

I heard this woman screaming in Japanese, out toward the water. There was debris and wood and houses and cars all over the horizon, you couldn't see anything. I looked through my camera's telephoto lens and could see a woman floating out there on what seemed to be part of a roof.

We tried to find a boat that was still operable, but every one we could find had a broken hull or something. So then we tried to find as much rope as we could, but the currents were swirling so much that she would be pulled close into us, almost close enough to get the rope, and then be sucked back out again. I remembered that the fire truck was up on the hill, so I ran back up there to see if there was anything that we could use at all, but I found flashlights and some life jackets and that's it. The keys were in the ignition but everything was backwards and in Japanese, so it took me about 10 minutes to figure out how to turn it on and drive it down to the water. We tried to radio for help over the intercom, but no one spoke Japanese. Eventually, this Japanese woman, Ayuka, appeared and she started radioing for help from the firetruck.

The sun started to drop rapidly, it was pitch black outside and freezing cold. It started snowing and we turned on the siren and the spotlight. We tried for over six hours to try and save this woman.

I keep running it through my mind, what if we had tied a rope to ourselves? But it seemed like nothing could survive that current. After six hours, she was pulled out to sea again and we didn't hear her screaming anymore. We'll never know whether she survived.

We wound up sleeping in our rental cars, with them running half the night to keep the heat on. We had blankets and fruit with us, Cliff bars and stuff like that, and enough water to last a day. Ayuka slept with us in there because she had no where else to go that had heat.

We woke up and the water was still surging. I walked down to the town and found a woman hanging from a tree, completely nude, twisted around a branch, contorted. It was a horrible horrible sight. She didn't look any older than me, and I'm 24.

The firemen came back and realized that their fire truck was not in the place where they left it. Ayuka tried to explain to them that we'd taken it to try and help the woman in the water.

The Sea Shepherd has such a bad reputation in Japan, they think we're terrorists basically, so they were really surprised that we had tried to help someone, especially someone Japanese. When they realized that, they said we should we all try to walk out of the village together.

By this time, wildfires had broken out all over, there was ash falling on the town. We climbed over a hill and found a little campfire with maybe a dozen people around it. They seemed like the only survivors. A couple of them were fishermen from the town, the ones who we had been trying to stop from killing the porpoises. One of them started getting really aggressive with us, so much that other people had to grab him and calm him down.

But then one woman approached us with food, very generously giving us rice balls. We were amazed that these people wanted to help us, because Sea Shepherd has such a bad reputation in Japan. It wasn't until we had rested there for about 30 minutes that I realized there was a pile of bodies stacked next to us. It was then that I thought we shouldn't be there. I felt terrible for taking these people's resources when we could just walk out of there ourselves. Because of the language barrier, we couldn't really help much. We told Ayuka we were going to leave on our own and she cried and hugged us. We gave her the blankets we had in the car and some food and some water and started our walk across the city.

When we climbed around another hill, we could finally see the whole city. It was a scene out of a war movie.

There were maybe three buildings standing and one of them was on fire, just a blazing inferno. A military helicopter was airlifting people off of it, even through the flames. We started walking across the city, through all the wreckage and debris. The only direction we knew to go was a road we could see in the distance that had cars driving on it. It took us eight hours to walk maybe fifteen miles. All the bridges and roads were destroyed and we literally had to climb up and over houses, across glass, and broken wood, potentially with people buried underneath. We saw some fish flapping on the ground that were still alive. We were literally walking through areas that were on fire. I'd say we breathed more smoke than oxygen that day. We saw maybe 10 people.

We finally got to the road with all the cars but we realized that the cars were only driving on an area about four kilometers long. They were driving from a sort of refugee camp on the end of the road to the other end where it was blocked off, then walking miles across debris to the only store that was open. We ended up walking across other coastal towns that were destroyed. There was just wave after wave of mud, almost shin deep, sometimes almost losing out shoes because it was so deep. Every quarter mile we'd find another body, or someone carrying a body out.

We had been staying in a hotel in a town called Kono, which was maybe only 40 miles away, so we decided to try and head there. We got to a little village and there was one man there whose job seemed to be to give rides to everyone who needed one. He found us a series of rides, and it took us three rides to get back to our hotel. We tried to give the people money for rides, but they didn't want any more than for the gas.

At the hotel, there was no power and no heat and it was freezing cold. We had a dinner of apples and bananas and drank the little water that we had left. But at the hotel, we were finally able to call home. We had been missing for over 30 hours and no one knew whether we were alive or dead. I'm amazed myself, still, that we made it out of there alive.

We were considering staying in Japan and heading to the south where the slaughter was still going on, but when the power came back on, we turned on the news and heard that the first nuclear reactor had blown up. We knew we had to get out of the country, because we were just 10 kilometers away from the fallout zone of the nuclear plant. But there were no car rental places, the trains were completely destroyed, the tracks were pulled completely out of the ground and turned upside down, even six miles from shore.

We scrambled to get out and hired two taxis to drive us to the only airport that was still open, in Akita, across the country four hours away. We paid them out of pocket an insane amount. We weren't sure if there would still be flights still going out, I was freaking out that we would be trapped there. When we pulled up the airport, I was incredibly relieved that the lights were on. We bought tickets out of the country on the first flight we could find.

The only reason we survived was pure luck. No one knew how bad the tsunami was going to be.

What people don't understand is that there's absolute devastation there right now. There's no refuge, there's no shelter, or anything.

People may think that going to Japan and helping out is a good idea, but it's probably not because of the language barrier. You'll probably wind up being babysat more than helping out. Instead, give financially to humanitarian groups like Save the Children and animal rights groups that are helping rescue animals.

I'm going to keep being an activist; environmentalism and animal rights are my life. Literally the day that our flight landed back in Seattle, I was in an anti-fur demonstration.

I had gone to Japan expecting to see a horror of a different kind, I expected to see porpoises and dolphins being unnecessarily murdered. But what I found was so much more different and horrible."

See some photos and video of the Sea Shepherd crew after the tsunami.

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