Buildings completely or partially destroyed

Sakuranbo was completely destroyed. One day it was just gone. The Ouka nursing home suffered large scale partial destruction, but it might as well have been gone too. Even though the building itself remained, the electrical system was flooded and shot, and several cars had crashed into the building so it was completely useless. But this was considered large scale partial destruction. So an unusable building doesn’t equal a completely destroyed building.

At the time, the Ouka nursing home facility had just opened in July 2010, and after it was damaged on 3/11 2011, it was demolished in June 2012 to meet the demolition deadline. Two disabled group homes were also damaged and torn down.

Sakuranbo, a vocational support center for the disabled, wasn’t far from the Ouka nursing home facility, so everyone from those facilities evacuated together.

The situation when the earthquake occurred

It was right around the time we were about to go home. The earthquake happened while we were carrying things getting ready for our end-of-day meeting. So not everyone was together in the same place.

There was a separate changing room, and some people were in there. But most people were gathered together, so we were able to instruct them to get under the tables right away even though it was shaking so much.

But the shaking was really strong, so one person couldn’t get all the way under the tables. I was nearby, so I pushed him inside and covered his head. But anyway, I was able to keep my cool at the time.

An earthquake during work

Were you working at the time?

Ogawa: Yes. We were making bread.


Around how many of you were working?

Ogawa: I think there were around 4 or 5 of us.


How did you protect yourselves when the earthquake happened?

I imagine there were all kinds of dangerous things around you while you were working. How was everyone?

Ogawa: The earthquake was really strong, so some people were holding on to the dollies. Then we grabbed onto the arms of the staff and they brought us outside.


Did you go outside with the staff?

Ogawa: I escaped right away with a trainee who had frozen and couldn’t move.


Was anyone injured or anything at that time?

Ogawa: No, no one.


How did things look around you?

Ogawa: Things had fallen down, and papers were scattered everywhere.

At the time earthquake hit

When the earthquake hit, I was at Moshiono Sato, a Shiogama city’s co-living facility for the disabled, which was located next door to Sakura Gakuen. A user there had an epileptic seizure, and I was called and just attending the person. I was in charge of both facilities at the time.

We brought the person to a room with tatami floor mat, laid him down and I was nursing. I couldn’t see how others were doing because the room was a bit separated from other space by a corridor. I imagine people were screaming but the staff was composed and giving directions like “everyone get under the tables!”

As I heard those voices, and as I attended the person laid down with epilepsy, a board for table tennis just next to the person suddenly started to fell over him. I placed one of my hands on the person while put the other to hold the board. I recall shouting and instructing people to go under the tables. Once the tremor stopped, I rushed to Sakura Gakuen to see all the trainees there were ok.

At Sakura Gakuen, everyone including the ones who were working at the workshop were instructed to cover themselves under the tables. I was told that initial sway shook tables so hard that some heavy items fell flying and some people were almost hit by them. I was glad nobody was injured.

On that day

Ai was at Orion in Ishinomaki city as usual and cooking stew in her training, when the huge earthquake hit.


Ms. Kumai: We contacted families of trainees through mobile phones. We were lucky to be able to talk to her mother on the phone. She was so happy to know that you were safe, wasn’t she?

Ai: Yes.

Ms. Kumai: Our (previous) facility was about thirty minutes on foot from her house. When the initial tremor calmed down, her father came through the debris to pick her up at the facility. He was the first family member of trainees who got there.

We were doing our cooking training at the time of the tremor. After the earthquake, we heated again rice and things that we were eating at the class. We didn’t have much problem about food.

I was weaving.

Shoko experienced the earthquake while working at Orion.


What were you making?

Shoko: I was making a vest for myself. I had just finished it.


Were you injured?

Shoko: No.

Kumai: Shoko was by the stairs at the time of the earthquake. She had just come out of a certain room in our building and gone by the stairs to reach the bathroom on the other side.

Shoko: I was washing my hands. I went out into the hall with soap still on my hands.

Kumai: I had the people who were in the rooms hide under desks. After the earthquake was over, I noticed Shoko wasn’t there. Then when I opened the door, I found her by the stairs with another woman (an employee of the building). I saw that and shuddered. It was thanks to this other woman with her that Shoko didn’t fall down the stairs.

I was in the cake shop where I was employed.

Where were you at the time?

Konno: At the time of the earthquake, I was in the cake shop where I was employed. It shook really hard, so we evacuated to the parking lot outside. Then it started snowing.

I was there with my boss and the other employees.

It shook quite a lot inside the factory, so things fell down. The heavy oven moved a centimeter, and all kinds of utensils and the bowl we use to crack eggs fell and made a big mess.

After the shaking stopped, I got worried about my family and tried calling them, but I couldn’t get a hold of them.


Where were you at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake?

I was at my home in Jusanhama, Kitakamicho, Ishinomaki. I was working from home as a massage therapist.


What were your thoughts when the earthquake happened?

I wasn’t really thinking, but I was amazed how big the quake was. I knew it was a little different than normal. There had been earthquakes before, but things like my Buddhist altar had never fallen from the shelves. But I heard things fall down. I thought it was going to be a lot of work to clean that up later. When I went outside, I noticed the house was groaning and creaking. Then I thought, “Wow, this is not good.” When things settled down, someone from the Ishinomaki Social Welfare Council (hereafter, “Council”) that had been assisting me came by car. They said, “You have to evacuate.” So I grabbed my windbreaker and my cane and evacuated by car to Kitakami Junior High School, which was on top of a hill.


Where were you and what were you doing the day of the disaster?

I was at my workplace in the Shishiori neighborhood. I was working at a company in the fisheries industry. They had around five factories total, but they were all destroyed, and now the company has downsized and integrated, so I’ve been laid off.


What sort of work did you do for the company?

I did shipping, packaging, assembly, and so on.


Around how many years did you work there?

I was there a long time. Eleven years.


Were you living in Kesennuma at the time?

I was living in prefectural housing in Shishiori, in the mountains.


When it started shaking around 14:46, did you get the feeling this was a bit unusual?

Yeah I did. It happened during work, so first everyone gathered in the courtyard outside the factory. The department supervisor took attendance and made sure everyone was there. There were around 100 of us. After that, we all followed the supervisor to evacuate.


Was the factory on low ground?

Yes. The cars in the parking lot in front of us were shaking and rolling on the waves. I felt kind of dizzy, and there was no way to hide under a table or anything like that, so I just stayed standing and thought, “This is not normal. It’s strange; the shaking is too strong.” At that time, I wasn’t aware a tsunami would come, and of course I couldn’t hear sirens or anything either. At first I was worried the second floor ceiling might fall down and crush us, but then I just wanted to get out of the room. A pipe had burst outside the window, and I could see water gushing out. I really had no idea what to do, but our supervisor said, “We can’t go outside now, so just take anything valuable and get ready,” and so we waited. After that, we evacuated. I was just worried that the building would come crashing down, and I was relieved to be able to escape. Once the shaking stopped, I wanted to go home, but around 15:00 my coworkers told me, “You can’t go back, it’s too dangerous. You should wait here.” I wondered why, because I still hadn’t imagined a tsunami coming. It was around 15:30 when I learned the reason. When I actually saw the tsunami before my eyes, I thought, “Oh, because a tsunami was coming. That’s why they told me to stay here,” and I understood. After that, I watched the tsunami rushing by with my coworkers. I saw a big ship being carried from the sea at alarming speed, and I watched it wondering how far it would go. A lot of other things came floating past too, like still intact houses and cars. I thought, “The factory and my car must be all gone.” Everyone’s legs started shaking, and we understood we couldn’t go home.


Was the place you and your supervisor and coworkers evacuated to on high ground?

Yes. The road was too narrow for cars to get through, so we all fled up there on foot.  It was around 5-10 minutes away from the factory.


Was the company doing tsunami evacuation drills at the time?

No, they weren’t.


So this place wasn’t a pre-determined evacuation area?

No, it was our first time going there. Our supervisor discussed it with the other managers, and they decided we would flee to that mountain. At that time they also prepared food and put it into backpacks.


What kind of food did you have?

It was canned food. The company makes canned goods, so that’s what we took.


Were there tsunami evacuation drills in the neighborhood you were living in?

No, there weren’t.


And so you didn’t know anything about evacuating, right?

I didn’t know anything, really. I hadn’t thought about it at all. I think my mindset has really changed from then to now, since the earthquake happened.


Where were you and what were you doing the day of the Great East Japan Earthquake?

When the shaking started, I was with my wife in our home in Yuriage, Natori City. I was 70 years old at the time and had retired, so I wasn’t working.


How did you evacuate?

We didn’t have any evacuation information at all at the time. We thought we might be the only ones who didn’t have the information because we can’t hear, but our hearing neighbors didn’t know either, so we actually couldn’t even judge whether we should evacuate or not.


Around how far was your house from the ocean?

Around 800 meters. It was about 3-4 minutes from Mount Hiyori in Yuriage, Natori City.


Did you imagine a tsunami might come?

I didn’t think about it.

I was born and raised in Yuriage, and previously there had never been a tsunami even when there had been earthquakes. I hadn’t heard anything about tsunamis from my parents either, so this was really the first time for me. We also never had any neighborhood evacuation drills, and were never taught anything about earthquakes.


So what made you feel the situation was dangerous enough to evacuate?

This earthquake was bigger than any one before, and it kept shaking again and again after that, so I thought maybe a tsunami could come. We went to the field nearby to see what the local residents were doing. We also encouraged our neighbors to evacuate with us, but it didn’t seem like they were going to act. It started shaking as we were talking, and meanwhile my older brother who lived nearby came to check on us. Apparently he assumed we had evacuated but came to check just in case, and was surprised to find us still at home. Then he told us to evacuate right away because a tsunami was coming.


Where were you at 2:46 on the day of the earthquake?

I was alone watching TV in my private room on the second floor. Then it started shaking. The shaking was really severe, so I thought it was the end of me along with the building.


So you thought it was different from a normal earthquake?

I mean, it just started shaking like crazy all at once. I was in shock. Fortunately I moved right away, and walked five steps to reach the wall near the door of my room. I stayed there for a really long time.


How did you escape from the second floor to the first floor?

It was my house, so I knew the way by touch. I could see a little better than I can now, so I was able to get out to the yard from the second floor.


Were you aware a tsunami might come when the earthquake happened?

Yes. My region is the area where the Sanriku Earthquake tsunami and the Great Chilean Earthquake tsunami struck, so I’d had evacuation drills for both earthquakes and tsunamis since elementary school. There was also an earthquake two days before, right? I’d heard that earthquake had also caused an around 1 meter tsunami that almost flipped ships over, so I was sure. My instinct told me this tsunami would be at least 5 or 6 meters. But I never thought it would be a 15 or 16 meter tsunami that would wash my house away.


I’d like to ask you about the damages. Do you mean your entire building was swept away?

The house and the shed were both completely destroyed. Only the foundations were left.


Was your family okay?

My family members were all at work and experienced the disaster in their separate workplaces, but they were all okay. That was a relief. I thought they’d all been swept away. I couldn’t get reception on my phone after the disaster, and it was a few days to a week before I was able to meet them in person and confirm they were safe. A lot of the information coming into our region was tragic, and although an acquaintance who had walked back home from far away reported seeing some of my family members, I didn’t know their exact status. I couldn’t rest at ease until I saw them face to face. I’ll never forget how that felt.

At the time of the earthquake

Could you tell us about the immediate damages caused?

We were to open a new support center called Workshop Fureai (hereafter Fureai) on April 1st in Shishiori district (where fishing boat Kyoutoku Maru was washed ashore). As the district didn’t have a bakery, we decided to try it out. We were ready to open the workshop when the earthquake hit and the tsunami followed. The city of Kesennuma was totally engulfed in fire on that day, and it was said that a site with propane gas cylinders across the street from Fureai was where the fire started. So, this area was in tremendous flames. Even after the fire was put out, we couldn’t come near to the area because of the heat. We could only come to the area where the building was after sometime. Fortunately there was no one killed by the incident among our trainees and the staff, however, some of the trainees lost their family members. There was neither water nor electricity, and our spirit was almost torn down.

Situation at the time of the disaster

What happened at the time of the disaster on March 11?

We were to expand our activities at the vocational support center for the disabled and it was the day we were moving to our new location. We started in the morning and had finished moving most of large items by the time.

Our workshop started the year before. As there was no place for people with disabilities to obtain vocational training in the area, demands for our place grew rapidly so we decided relocation to somewhere closer to city center. However, we lost by the tsunami on that day both Kirara Onagawa’s original place, which was very close to the coast and where our trainees used to work, and our new location.

The moment of the earthquake

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.