Safety confirmation

The status of damages directly after the earthquake

The panels on top of the air conditioner fell down from different places. There were some unbreakable dishes inside the tea cupboard, and the cupboard doors shook and moved and knocked down a few of the dishes. Our staff computers almost fell. Things moved out of place a bit, but we didn’t have that much earthquake damage.

After the shaking stopped, we checked on everyone then and there to make sure everyone was safe including our employees.

Almost everyone was okay. We did have one autistic person who had holed up inside the disabled bathroom because of the bad shaking, but we knew where that person was. We had an employee stay with that person. We were able to confirm early on that there were no injuries. It was before 15:00 when we confirmed everyone was okay.

Dedicated effort

When you saw the staff managing the shelter, did you feel like you had to do something?

Ogawa: Umm…

Kayoko: I don’t think they even had time to think about it. We (the staff) were responsible for some severely disabled people, so we had to protect them first. We didn’t know if our own families were okay, and we didn’t know what had happened to the families of our physically handicapped users or our users in wheelchairs, either. And so Ms. Ogawa and others who would jump into action with one or two words from us helped us out. The ones who took action right away listened to us attentively.

The situation was so urgent that it was like, they had to do it for everyone else. We also had severely handicapped people to think about, so I think their thought process was that they didn’t want to be any trouble. She (Ms. Ogawa) also had parents and siblings in the region, and I’m sure she was worried. But she never said anything about that, and just kept working hard without even making a face.

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 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.

Two days at the assembly hall

What did the some-hundred employees do after evacuating to the mountain?

Some people gradually started heading home to check on their houses and families. Those who lived nearby went home on foot. I stayed at the assembly hall for two days. Other people from around the region also gathered there, and I hear some whose homes were washed away or destroyed stayed for around a month.


Did the assembly hall have running water?

No, it didn’t. Some other people went far away with their cars and brought us mountain water in tanks. We split it up amongst ourselves and used a little at a time as drinking water. For food, we had one meal a day. My coworkers and I ate canned food in the evenings. Two people shared one can. We were hungry and really tired.


Was the assembly hall large?

It was around 30 square meters, with two rooms around 15 square meters each.


And you were packed like sardines, right?

It was really full. There were no futons, either. The people in the houses behind us brought blankets and such, and we were really grateful. It was really cold, so we slept right up next to each other. There wasn’t even enough space to stretch our legs, so the whole time we had to sleep with our knees bent. We were still wearing our factory uniforms, so it was really cold.


What sorts of conversations did you have with your coworkers who were with you?

When I asked my coworkers what they were doing, I found out they were checking to make sure their families were okay. They said they wanted to go home because they were worried about their families. On March 12th I also said I wanted to go home, but I was stopped because a fire had broken out near the factory. Then on March 13th I walked to my daughter’s school with a coworker, and I was safely reunited with my daughter.

The day before that, on March 12th, one of my supervisors had asked me in writing, “What’s your daughter’s name? How old is she?” This person was going around asking this to everyone who had children, and taking notes. My supervisor walked to elementary and junior high schools a whole hour away on foot to check on the kids, and told the teachers, “Their mom is okay. Their dad is alive.” That person told me, “You daughter is well. She’s safe,” and I was really relieved.


How did you normally communicate with people at work?

In writing. I just happened to have a message board in my bag when the disaster happened, so I used that to communicate. If I hadn’t had paper, I may have had to manage with gestures, or just deal with not being able to communicate because I couldn’t say anything.


When you evacuated, did the people with you take you by the hand and lead you?

No. I had coworkers in front of and behind me, and I just followed the person in front.


Were there any other hearing impaired people besides you working at that company?

No, I was the only one. There was an intellectually disabled person there who also fled with us.


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.