The moment of the earthquake

Story: Mr. Yoshichika Tobikawa (Male Man/ in his 40s at the time of the disaster/ SMA [spinal muscular atrophy])

Have you had your leg problem since you were small?

Yes, since I was small. It started when I was around one year old, and it was diagnosed when I was in the second grade of elementary school. The disease is called spinal muscular atrophy or SMA. It’s characterized by progressive muscle wasting, and it is categorized as an intractable disease by the government. I could walk until I was about 20 years old. However, I fell and got injured in one occasion, and so walking was considered too risky. I started using a wheelchair and that made me unable to stand up on my feet.


I see. Where were you, and what were you doing on March 11th?

I was in a daycare center. It was a place where persons with disabilities from Ishinomaki, Yamoto, and Higashi Matsushima came for their service. It took about five minutes by car from my house. The center was in Akai district of Higashi Matsushima city, and was located next to the Miyagi Toubu Cardiovascular Hospital.

Tsunami was about one meter high. As it was a daycare facility, its building was barrier-free and the floors were as low as the street level. The service usually finishes at around 15 o’clock, but on that day, people were playing table tennis volleyball. I couldn’t play on that day and was feeling relaxed. I was dozing away thinking I could go home soon. Then suddenly all the mobile phones started to buzz and the tremor came. There was a home for the elderly near the Ishinomaki Nishi High School, and we were to move there for safety. While staff was preparing cars, someone outside said that tsunami was coming. Director of the daycare center ran to the cardiovascular hospital to see if they would accept us there. We all moved to the hospital then, 30 or 40 of us. Even before we moved, the parking lot of the hospital was immersed in water by the tsunami. Streets were flooded by waves. Staff members took the user of the daycare center one by one to the hospital. The hospital building was built on slightly elevated ground and all the wheelchairs were brought there. People who could walk walked to the hospital.


Did people carried wheelchairs?

Yes. Three or four people carried a wheelchair above water level at a time with person on it.


How deep was the tsunami at that time?

It was just like the depth of staff members’ shoes. We could have moved with wheelchairs if there was not more water coming in, but the water was getting deeper.


Do you remember what the time was?

The tsunami came rather late in Ishinomaki area. Joh River along the Route 45 burst and the water came from there. It was just after 15 o’clock I guess.


Meanwhile the staff was discussing where to take refuge, right?

We didn’t have much time. There was not much information source neither.


Could you listen to radio then?

We didn’t have a radio, but at that time we could still use our mobile phones. I remember seeing some news such as the magnitude of the earthquake, that warnings for serious tsunami had been issued, and that seven meters high tsunami would hit the coast of Fukushima. Despite all the information, we didn’t know what was happening along the coast of Miyagi.


So were the basic means for information mobile phones?

Yes. It’s possible that some of the staff members were listening to car radios, but we were rather in a panic at that time. No one collapsed or anything. Usually, I use a belt to keep my body up when I go out. I would collapse even with a slight shaking movement. I did not have the belt as I was in a relaxed mode, and I could barely keep myself straight without it. Then later I was told that one of the staff was holding my body from the back. Now I know that that’s how I could manage without collapsing.


It was a huge tremor, wasn’t it?

It sure was huge. I would sure have collapsed if I had been by myself.


Did you think of tsunami when the earthquake hit?

Tsunami…. we had tsunami with the earthquake a few days earlier. I expected something small like that. Still, I didn’t think it will reach here. We can’t see the ocean from here, you know. On a map, it’s less than a kilometer from the coast line though. The tremor was extraordinary, and I thought something could happen but I was assuming that tsunami would definitely not reach here.


Did this area have tsunami before?

No. My mother was from very near to this place, but even that famous tsunami from the earthquake in Chile didn’t come here. I had heard that in Ishinomaki only places near to rivers such as Kitakami River could have tsunami. My image about tsunami was those fish baskets floating in the fish market.


It is difficult to have images of tsunami when you are inland.

You are right. I had no thoughts of tsunami. That daycare center over there is also by a river though.


You saw the water coming from that river. That means the tsunami had come through that river, I suppose.

We first took refuge on the first floor of the cardiovascular hospital. The waiting room we were staying had big glass windows, and we could see outside. We saw the Route 45 flooded and cars and trees floating and rushing with the water. We started saying that being on the first floor may be dangerous, and decided to move up to the second floor. However, there was no electricity and the elevator was not functioning. So, people who couldn’t walk were carried up one by one on stretchers. We had a room assigned, had blue plastic sheet spread in the room and slept together. They had a lot of blankets and the staff put them on us. There was no heater, but I didn’t feel cold, probably because the room was packed. Some people complained about the floor saying it was hard. I thought that’s not the important thing for us at that moment.


Was even a hospital without electricity?

Yes. They probably had backup generators or something for patients on mechanical ventilator, I guess.


Did you stay at the cardiovascular hospital for some days?

No, it was only one night. We were told that the hospital had to resume its operations from the following day because they expected quite a lot of persons to come for medical attentions. It was decided that we move out with the dawn of the day next morning. I heard that staff of the daycare center moved cars up from the facility to higher ground to save them from tsunami, for just in case. There were two cars left at the center, I heard, if I remember correctly. We used those cars to go to the home for the elderly, which we originally planned to take refuge. However, usual route was not passable. The cars had to drive dodging the debris. There were big logs everywhere, even on top of railways. Those logs were swept from nearby timber basin. There were ships washed up as well. A car was stuck into the wall of the daycare center.


How big was the tsunami?

From what I’ve heard, it was about one meter deep around the daycare center. People standing could have their upper body out of water, but the ones on wheelchairs would not have survived.


Could you tell us about the time at the home for the elderly?

We reached the home for the elderly, but I didn’t have any idea what happened to my house because mobile phones had been out of service from that morning. My younger brother usually takes train to his office in Kakuda, but on the day of the disaster he took his car since he would come home late because it was Friday. He left Kakuda just after the earthquake but got home the following morning. He stopped by at our house, took coats and medications, and brought them to the home for the elderly. He was stopped near the Ishinomaki Nishi High School in Yamoto district and was told he couldn’t drive any further. He left his car there and walked in water to get to the house.


Where was your mother on the day of the disaster?

She was on her way to pick me up at the daycare center, however, as she heard of approaching tsunami she headed back, telling people on the way about the tsunami, came back to the house and then took refuge at one of the houses in our community with more members of the area.