Japan disaster: One couple's battle to find each other

The aftermath in Ishonomaki, Miyagi prefecture. Photo / AFP
The aftermath in Ishonomaki, Miyagi prefecture. Photo / AFP

Tsueko Takahashi, 56, has carved a dry path to her home over muddy wood panels, fallen utility poles and chunks of concrete. The trek is difficult but one she is grateful to be able to make.

When the 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck coastal Ishinomaki, she hurriedly bundled her 89-year-old mother into the car and sped towards higher ground in the centre of town and the paper mill where her husband Mikio works.

But Mikio had other ideas - he rushed home to check on his family, but quickly found himself trapped on the upper floor of his home when the tidal surge flooded the lower level and aftershocks rumbled on for hours.

The couple would be separated for two nights, not knowing if the other had survived. Hundreds have been killed in the town and many others have been displaced.

"I spent the first night just looking out the window, really not thinking much," the 57-year-old husband told AFP. "I just thought to myself, 'If I wait here, my wife will come back'."

Coastal areas like Ishinomaki bore the brunt of Friday's disaster, as the giant waves smashed into coves and gathered pace.

The Takahashi family home faces a river in the remote northeastern port town - a definite disadvantage.

"The tsunami had to have whirled around and moved sideways to hit this side of the river," said Mrs Takahashi.

As Mikio surveyed the initial damage to his home wrought by the quake, he looked outside and saw that the churning waves had swallowed up the bridge over the river and were headed straight for the house.

"It was bringing debris and pushing running cars with people inside," he said.

"Water quickly burst into the first floor of the house. While all this happened, aftershocks continued, and they were strong. It was horrifying."

The waters receded by nightfall, but Mikio was still stuck on the second floor, where he spent the night.

Meanwhile, Tsueko and her mother slept inside their car on the hill, and then they stayed at a friend's house the following night because the piles of rubble strewn everywhere by the tsunami were blocking her path home.

On Sunday, Tseuko decided it was time to fight her way back to her husband.

She first stepped onto a tilted pier now sitting atop the bridge. She then hopped onto a ferry leaning against it, and emerged from its broken window to climb down to the bridge.

On the bridge, she then walked by two broken houses, over giant heaps of pulp and forklift pallets from the paper mill, the broken wood of destroyed homes and eight vehicles piled up, nearly blocking the end of the bridge.

She then ducked under power lines dangling from broken utility poles.

At home, she taps on a piano that is flipped upside down in the living room - with a dining table, chairs and a sofa perched on top of it to support the ceiling.

"How did this happen?" she said.

In their backyard, five flipped cars sit over what used to be Tsueko's herb garden.

"There was myoga ginger, wild parsley, grape trees, a maple tree... They are all buried under the debris," she said.

Mikio is more upbeat, but admits the future is uncertain.

"Our damage is nothing. I consider ourselves fortunate because there are so many others who are going through so much," he said.

"Luckily our relatives were fine. We have been running errands for them, so we haven't had time to think about what to do to rebuild our lives."


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