Eyewitness stories are one of my greatest resources to help shape and direct my work in the field. I’m incredibly thankful to the people sharing their story, providing me valuable angles and background information about an event. Sometimes however the stories themselves are so strong that they deserve more than being background material.
This was the case during my time in Japan, covering the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. A number of people I spoke to had stories that left me absolutely speechless, and I knew I wanted to put them together to this miniseries of eyewitness stories.
These are stories by everyday Japanese people, old and young, seeing the world around them being literally washed away, and a regular Friday afternoon turning into a fight for their lives.
Some requested anonymity, and through that also inspired the name for this series.
These are the stories you will see as you look closely “In Our Eyes”.
“I was on the highway when the earthquake hit. It was so strong that I decided to turn back towards my home. I had the radio on, and reports of the tsunami waves started coming in. Since they were only talking about cities higher north, I assumed everything would be safe.
Thinking back now, retracing my route – I was heading straight into the tsunami.
On my right hand side I saw the wave of black water rushing towards me, and before I could act, the water completely surrounded my car, lifting it from the ground. I was floating in a black sea of mud and debris. Somehow my engine kept going, so I was able to open the windows, and drag myself up on the roof of the car. The scenes that met me were surreal. I saw people trapped by the rising waters in their houses, climbing from the second floor windows, unto the roofs. In the water, many others were floating around like me helplessly trapped on the roofs of their cars.
A small boat floated by, close enough for me to jump in the dark water and swim to what seemed a safer option than my car. Five people were already in the boat, and we floated along in silence, as the world around was swept away. People would climb up on telephone poles, but whenever a wave came and engulfed the poles, everyone would be washed away and disappear. As we saw this happen again and again I could not speak, I was completely numb.
A heartbreaking scream shook me back to reality. A small child was floating in the water close to the boat and we managed to rescue her. I held her close, in the freezing cold.
For a long time we floated around, cast about by the waves. As we came closer to a bridge we got caught by a pillar and some driftwood. A man standing on the pillar threw us a rope and we all managed to get out of the boat. The pillar was the only nearby spot above water.
As it got darker, a big boat floated by and got stuck. In our hunt for higher ground we got up on the boat, hoping to use it to get out of the water and unto shore. It was getting too dark to move on, but also too cold to stay still with the small girl. We desperately needed to get to shore and find shelter for her. Above us helicopters were crisscrossing the sky, but no one saw us. No help was coming.
What happened next is a series of events that I cannot explain, as I think back.
In what had now turned into a black night, with snow in the air, we managed to use the stranded boat to reach close to the shore and get out of the water. On land we searched for anything and anybody that could help us, but no one was there. We found an abandoned truck, and got the headlights switched on, hoping somebody would see it. In the back there were blankets and a bottle of water. I knew I had found the shelter we needed for the girl. I brought the water back to the rest of our group waiting on the boat, and we carried the girl to safety in the truck. From curtains and blankets in the back I did the best I could to replace our soaking wet clothes and keep us warm.
As morning came I returned to the boat, counting nine people now. The water had receded from the highest points and we decided to move on. The day flashed by us in our effort to find shelter and help. After a night in what was not yet an organized evacuation center, we finally found local officials telling them our location and situation. A rescue team was sent out immediately.”