Having lost almost everything, the strangest experience for the two sisters Ryoko and Kaori, is to walk in the remains of their house – wearing shoes inside what used to be their living room.
In the gym hall, Ryoko is racing across the floor. She sees nothing, except the springboard in front of her. 1, 2, 3, her feet are synced in perfect rhythm, setting off and being catapulted into the air. She’s weightlessly flying, in a long split second. But as she makes a perfect landing on both feet, the ground is giving away under her. Everything is shaking and squeaking. Something is wrong. The tremors become stronger and stronger. Ryoko knows it’s an earthquake. She has experienced it many times before, but never this strong. She can’t get up and run, as it continues to shake.
Kaori, 9, and her sister Ryoko, 12, Ishinomaki, Japan.
The girls around her are screaming and crying. Ryoko tries to crawl to the others, helping to get everyone to sit together and hold on to each other. The ground is rocking under them in what feels like an eternity. And then, finally, it stops. The following silence is deafening, as if they’re all holding their breath thinking “Is it really over?”, without really daring to believe it.
Over the school loudspeakers the girls in the gym are told to get to the meeting place in the school yard with the rest of the school. It’s cold, and Ryoko, only has her training jacket on. She is looking for her younger sister, Kaori, but before they find each other, their grandmother comes running into the schoolyard. When Ryoko sees her, she knows that something is very wrong. Together they find Kaori, and they are ready to hurry home. Before they can leave, the speakers are crackling again. A high pitched voice is screaming that a tsunami is coming. Everyone must hurry into the schoold for safety, as high up as they can get. Panic! The whole school is rushing up to the third floor. Ryoko is scared. Through the window, she sees the city turning into a transient ocean floor.
“The water rushed between all the houses and gardens. The roads disappeared and eventually only rooftops were visible above the water, they looked like strange little islands in a vast ocean. It was like something from a movie,” says Ryoko.
As the water reaches the school, it doesn’t have as much speed anymore, but it continues to rise.
“The three of us, grandmother, Ryoko and myself tried to call mom and dad with our phones, but there was no signal. The network was dead,” Kaori recalls.
The girls press themselves closer to their grandmother. The water has stopped rising, but the entire ground floor is gone, everything is underwater. The day gets darker and darker.
In the evening, snow is falling silently. Ryoko and Kaori still can’t get hold of their parents. They are scared and confused. The water is blocking everything, and the can’t come home. There are no blankets or food at the school, when night falls, they lie in the clothes on the cold floor. Few people are sleeping though, everyone is in shock from what they have seen. Some cry and some are just lying quietly, starring. Some are with their parents, some are alone, and some are missing altogether. Ryoko doesn’t know what have happened to the missing ones.
“The next day was long and strange. We did not really know what had happened. We all just wanted to be with our mum and dad, but we couldn’t get information on where they were,” says Ryoko.
No one can get hold of anyone outside the school. Everyone is waiting, without knowing what they are really waiting for. Outside the water is slowly beginning to pull back.
VBy lunchtime the third day, something finally happens. During the morning, more parents have turned up at school. Kaori and Ryoko are sure that their mom and dad too will soon come. And at lunchtime it happens, mom and dad come. They are finally all together again.
“Mom and Dad told us that our house had been completely destroyed by the water, and that we would have to stay at an evacuation center,” Ryoko and Kaori recalls.
Ryoko is wondering if her best teddy bear, a Capybara, has survived, but they can not get back to the house yet.
Across the city, evacuation centers are opening everywhere. Ryoko and Kaori are living in a public library. There are many other families there and lots of new friends – and books to pass the time. The sisters are both helping to clean and to pass out food for everyone living in the library.
The sisters sitting in their temporary home, by the outer wall of a public library.
On the last day of March, the whole family is returning to the school to celebrate Ryoko’s school completion as she will continue in another school. The celebration should have taken place a few days after the earthquake, but it was not possible because of the water. Now, it has been cleaned and turned into an evacuation center, like their library. But today is celebration, and everyone is enjoying themselves and singing.
Another princess is coming to life, under the pen of Kaori, as she’s passing time in the evacuation center.
Ryoko says goodbye to her teachers, especially the teacher of her favorite subject: social studies. After the party, the girls are allowed to come back to see the remains of their house.
“For the first time in our lives we were allowed to go inside the house with shoes on,” says Ryoko shocked.
“It was the strangest thing I’ve ever tried, and I didn’t like it,” Kaori continues.
Kaori is looking for her Capybara teddybear, but it’s gone. Ryoko is looking for her trumpet. She has played since third grade and is starting in a new band at the new school. She finds it, covered in mud, but it works! She is looking forward to start practicing again.
Playing since 3rd grade Ryoko was thrilled to find her trumpet again, under the mud and rubble inside their house.
This story concludes the mini-series of eyewitness stories from my coverage of the Japan earthquake and tsunami. For more on the eyewitness series, and to read the previous stories, click here. To support my continued work as an independent humanitarian photographer, please consider donating via PayPal here.