The twins Hiroki and Miho are caught inside their school. A gigantic earthquake has hit, and a tsunami floods the town right before their eyes.
It’s late afternoon and school is about to finish for today. Hiroki’s thoughts escape out the window of the classroom. The rest of the art-class is busy drawing and painting. A ray of sun hits him and warms his body in the midst of a cold winter. He looks forward to going home. Suddenly everything starts to shake. At first just a little, but then harder and harder. The tables are dancing, and the windows are rattling, pictures are falling down from the walls. Hiroki is torn out of his daydreaming; an earthquake is hitting! The building is cracking and everybody is screaming. It’s the biggest earthquake Hiroki and his classmates have ever experienced, and it goes on and on. The earth is shaking so much, nobody is able to move. Under his desk Hiroki is hanging on to the leg of the desk.
Twins Hiroki and Miho, 10 years old. Fifth graders in Ishinomaki, Japan
When at last it’s quiet, the whole class runs to the teacher. Together they get down the main stairs and out into the school yard. Hiroki calls for his sister Miho. They are twins but are not in the same class. There is snow in the air, and Hiroki is cold while he is calling and looking for Miho. All the children press close together to keep warm, many of them left their jackets behind in the rush to get out.
“Hiroki!” a girl suddenly shouts. It’s Miho she is ok! They hurry to Hiroki’s teacher and keep close together while the school is being emptied. Slowly things calm down while the names of everybody are called out. But suddenly a helicopter turns up from behind the roof of the school. The engine is roaring through the wind, from a big megaphone sounds a message nobody has expected:
“Tsunami on its way, Tsunami on its way. Get away from the ground! Seek upwards!”
Afraid and confused everybody rushes back into the school again, up the stairs all the way to the roof. As the door is being unlocked everybody rushes out on the large flat roof, four stories up. Hiroki and Miho hurry to the edge to see what is happening. Everything looks normal, only the sky is alarmingly dark. But as Miho and Hiroki are standing close together they see something that makes them silent. They are scared and cannot believe their own eyes.
“Suddenly there was something that came right towards us. It looked like a big black snake which rolled itself through the whole town,” Hiroki tells and continues, “but it was black water which filled the streets and ran over the houses. I saw a lot of cars floating around just like the small plastic cars I have at home in my room.”
Miho interrupts, ”The water came closer and closer, down from the harbor and from the river behind the school. It was squeezed down the small road between the school and the houses. When I saw the water coming rushing into the school yard, just where we stood a few minutes earlier, I got scared.”
Facing the ocean Hiroki and Miho watched the water coming straight at them, rushing up the small street leading into the schoolyard where they stood minutes earlier.
Furniture, cars, roofs and all kind of trash from people’s homes are floating in the water. It rises and rises until the whole ground floor of the school disappears under the black water. Hiroki and Miho are totally isolated. No telephones are working and they don’t know where their mother, father or big brother are.
The teachers are gathering everybody. They have to sleep at the school tonight. They go inside and spread out in a couple of classrooms at the top floor. There are no blankets and the heating doesn’t work now. It quickly goes cold when the sun disappears. There is no food, and the toilets don’t work.
“I missed my mother but didn’t know where she was or if she was ok. It was the longest night ever,” says Miho.
The next morning is dark and grey. It’s raining and Hiroki and Miho are caught at the school as on a desert island in the middle of the ocean. There is still no food and Hiroki is hungry. Not until the following day supplies finally arrive. Bananas, fruits and rice cakes. Never before did anything taste this good. But even better than food is when their big brother turns up. The water has started drawing back, and he has fought his way through manholes and rubble to find Hiroki and Miho. Among all the super heroes Hiroki knows his big brother has just become the strongest and toughest of them all. Together they send a message to their parents that everybody is ok.
Shortly after, Hiroki and Miho’s mum and dad reach the school which during the following days is transformed into an evacuation center. During the next three weeks the family stays at a few square meters among many other families. They have none of their own belongings and only the clothes that are distributed. But they are together, all of them.
Miho and Hiroki leaving the evacuation center. Finally going home!
After a month Hiroki and Miho return to their house for the first time. Just as at the school the whole ground floor has been covered by the water and everything has been destroyed. Miho is happy to be back.
“At the center of evacuation I was sick and threw up several times. At home I relax and feel good even if nothing is like before.”
Miho overlooking her neighbourhood and the remains of the houses. A few weeks ago, these were the streets and gardens where she would be playing with her friends. Now she’s wondering when those times will return.
She helps her father and grandfather cleaning up and digging mud out of the living room. Hiroki is more cautious. He can’t stop thinking about the water that rolled over the town and prefers to stay at the school.
“I’m afraid that the water will return. At the school I know nothing will happen.”
Miho, at the other hand, is more concerned that their washing machine is broken.
Most of the mud has been scraped out of the living room now. The dark line bordering the ceiling, serves as a reminder of how high the water stood.
Like this story? Read more. This story is the continuation of my mini-series of eyewitness stories from the Japan earthquake and tsunami. For more on the eyewitness series, and to read the first two stories, click here. To support my continued work as an independent humanitarian photographer, please consider donating via PayPal here.