A few moments earlier, Aoyama had heard that tsunami estimated to be about six meters would be reaching nearby shores. The water tower where he and his colleagues were was about 20 meters high. He couldn’t believe what was unfolding before his eyes.
At the time of the massive earthquake that day, there had been seven people inside the chamber of commerce and industry building. After instructing the female staff to evacuate to the town hospital located on higher ground, Aoyama and the other men were getting ready to go there themselves, when a local resident informed them that the chamber of commerce building was a designated tsunami evacuation site. None of the staff had known.
If there was a possibility that local residents would seek shelter at the building, the doors had to be unlocked. A police car was driving around, repeatedly announcing that six-meter waves were expected. Because six meters would come only as high as the second floor of the building, Aoyama and three others decided they would take shelter on the building’s top floors.
At around 3:25 p.m., about 40 minutes after the temblor, water levels were about 1 meter high. But the muddy water surged quickly, and in a matter of a few minutes had reached the roof of the building. Realizing the water tower atop the building was their only hope, the four men climbed it to the top from its four corners and looked at each other. All around them, people were being swept away. When the water got within 50 centimeters of their feet, they knew they were next. They prepared themselves for death.
Meanwhile, a 53-year-old fisherman, Yuji Suzuki, was watching the scene unfold from higher ground. He was pointing his camera at the town, inching toward dusk, when he noticed the four men. They won’t make it, he thought.
Suzuki himself had experienced a close call. At first, he and his wife Chiaki, 53, who runs a flower shop, had taken shelter at the parking lot of the town hospital, located 16 meters above sea level. The frantic voice on the town’s disaster radio network kept admonishing residents to escape, but Suzuki assumed they were safe where they were. But when water levels came to within 2 meters of the lot, the couple hurried toward Kumano Shrine, located on even higher ground. Chiaki trembled as they climbed the steps toward the shrine, wondering how high they had to go to be spared their lives.
Suzuki, who continued to shoot photos, suddenly stopped. A ship belonging to Chiaki’s father, Shukuro Sato, 78, could be seen caught in a whirlpool in the bay. Meanwhile, the tsunami swallowed the hospital parking lot and submerged the hospital’s first floor underwater. How many people were swept away from the parking lot and the hospital’s first floor is unknown. So, still, is Sato’s whereabouts.
According to the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake Tsunami Joint Survey Group comprising university researchers and other experts, the tsunami that hit Onagawa’s central district were about 20 meters at their highest. Run-up height, or the maximum height of tsunami travelling onshore is said to have reached a maximum of about 35 meters. Both numbers are some of the highest experienced by any municipality’s central district. Except for some evacuation sites set on higher ground, all designated evacuation spots in Onagawa were destroyed. Most of the three buildings — including the chamber of commerce building — designated for tsunami evacuation were completely submerged underwater.
So why did the water get so high in Onagawa? The head of the town’s disaster prevention division, Kiyoto Abe, points to the local terrain as a major reason. “The entrance to Onagawa Port is narrow, and the town center is sandwiched between mountains. The downtown area, therefore, became a path for the waves to travel through.”
It was Abe who had continued to plead with residents to escape through the municipal government’s emergency radio network. Water rose to the third floor of the town hall where the radio system he was using urging residents to escape was located. The water had reached Abe’s hips, when he finally crawled up to the roof and escaped death.
Aoyama and the three others climbed off the water tower two hours later unscathed. However, the local residents who had informed them of the chamber of commerce building’s designation as a tsunami evacuation site were swallowed by the water as they rushed up a hillside to higher ground.
Aoyama says, “They must have had time to get to even higher ground. I wonder how far up they’d gone. In Onagawa, how high you got became the difference between life and death.”
The chamber of commerce has relaunched its operations in a prefab building located further inland. Confronted by the end of extensions they were granted to repay bank loans, some business owners say they wished they’d died in the disaster. Aoyama, meanwhile, tries to encourage them, saying, “There are those who wanted to live but couldn’t. Let’s keep our chins up.”
The total number of dead or missing from the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami has reached 922 people in Onagawa. With one in 11 residents dead or missing, the municipality has the highest percentage of such victims to population of all areas hit hard by the disasters. A year later, the town center remains a stretch of vacant land, where the only sound is that of trucks carrying rubble out of the area. (By Shin Yasutaka, City News Department)