Local man’s firsthand account of Japanese earthquake disaster

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Members of the Sea Shepherd group make their way out of Otsuchi following the earthquake.

The following article was written by Edmonds resident Scott West, a former criminal investigator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Seattle office, who now works for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Department of Intelligence and Investigations. West was in the northern Japanese city of Otsuchi when the area experienced a 9.0 earthquake last week. The article and photos appeared on the Sea Shepherd’s website and are reprinted here with West’s permission.

The day started out as normal as can be when you are working on exposing and stopping the largest cetacean slaughter on the planet.  We were joined the night before by three new Guardians: Marley, Carisa, and Mike.  The six of us headed into town to check to see if any of the harpoon boats had gone out in the windy conditions.  Two had.  We also met with the Prefecture police who were waiting for us.

After one of the boats returned with a load of small fish, we began to give the new Guardians a tour of the area.  The police followed and so the three vehicles paraded in and around the harbor.  We came to light on a dock area in the central harbor.  We have felt several earthquakes and tremors since we have been here.  I lived in the San Francisco Bay area for a number of years.  This was like nothing I have ever experienced.  The vehicles were hopping around and it was difficult to stand.  I suggested we leave and no one needed coaxing.  There are (were) a number of fish processing plants out on this jetty.  The employees were streaming out of them and headed for the tsunami wall.  The police, who had taken up a post at the only place we could pass, were frantically motioning for everyone to get through the gates in the tsunami wall.

We got through. These walls and gates are massive structures that appear to be built to withstand military bombardment.  They extend high up into the air and rim the entire harbor area of the town. We knew about a small road that hugs the coast heading south out of town and from where we can see the porpoise processing area. We went there. As we were driving along the interior of the wall, the huge gates were being closed and lowered. Many people were going about these tasks with determination. We headed up to the vantage point and were soon joined by a fire truck and half dozen vehicles with local citizens.

Otsuchi, Japan on March 12.

It was not long before the water drained from the harbor and then refilled. We learned from the firemen to expect to see several cycles of this draining and refilling. The water then rapidly refilled the harbor and rose right up to inundate all of the areas on the water side of the wall. It happened very quickly. It drained again, this time almost down to the mud. Then the returning water pushed past and over the draining water creating a wall of black howling water. This time the water rose even faster and topped the wall. It kept rising up on the hillsides and filling the valleys and crevices beyond. Several times this happened and all the while aftershocks were happening.

As darkness approached it was clear that we were not going to be able to drive off that hill. Both ends of the road were blocked with debris and later we discovered the roadways were gone. The firemen and locals hiked up over the hills to see what they could learn about their loved ones. The cell phones were useless at this point. That left the six of us alone on the road with a young woman who had been visiting from another town. Then it started to snow. Mixing in with the snow was ash from the many fires burning in the hills and damaged buildings. The smoke was choking.

The seven of us took refuge in our cars. Once the snow stopped, we took stock of our situation. The water was still falling and rising in the harbor below. Debris consisting of houses, cars, oil tanks, boats, fishing equipment, personal belongings, and parts of the same were swirling around in the dim light. We saw at least one body on the beach. Later it came to rest in the limbs of a tree.

Suddenly, from out in this mess, we heard a woman’s cries for help. With the twilight, we could make out her form out on a piece of floating debris. We scrambled to find rope and tried in vain to get a boat going. The Japanese woman with us called back to the woman. Then Mike raced back up the road to commandeer the fire truck. He brought it down to our location. With its radio, we were able to notify the authorities of the woman’s plight. No help came.

We continued to venture out on a seawall that was constantly being exposed and then over topped by water. It was a gamble, but we thought it would get us closer to her. She had no way to maneuver her platform and we had no way to get a line to her. It was horrible. The snow came back with a vengeance. Her cries for help would come and go as the debris was being pushed and pulled by the fast currents of the water. It was pitch dark by now. We found the switches for the truck’s two spotlights and searched to find her. Two boats appeared in the distance. It took almost two hours to get their attention and divert them to where we thought the woman was located. They came near her, and then moved away again. We were in shock and disbelief. The debris field then moved quickly away into the bay. We could hear her no more. We did notice that one of the boats was moving with the debris and we can only hope that the boat found her.

The temperature was hovering around freezing. It was a long restless night with the seven of us huddled in two small cars.  Fortunately, we did have full tanks of gas and were able to run the heaters from time to time. We also had some power bars and water with us.

Dawn brought more after shocks, smoke filled skies, and the return of the firemen. They had discovered a couple of refugees in the woods too. We packed up our things, locked the cars, and began our trek out. At the bottom of the hill, we were better able to assess the damage to the road. We did not know where the firemen were going, but they made it clear that we should follow them.

The path was impassable with mud, water, and rubble so the firemen decided that we would go up the hill. This is a very steep hill, almost vertical. Several of our belongings were abandoned on the climb. Finally, we dropped back down into the top of a small valley that opened onto the sea. Every house in this hamlet had been destroyed. We found a welcome fire and were offered rice and soup from the pot cooking over timbers pulled from the wreckage. The generosity of the people cannot be overstated.  With destruction and death surrounding them and an uncertain future ahead of them; they shared with us the little food they had. As they began to salvage poles and other materials from the rubble it became clear to us that they were setting up camp for the long haul. We did not want to be a burden and so decided to press on. The firemen encouraged us to stay because they knew what was ahead. We thanked them, gave them the couple of towels and blankets we had, and moved on.

Apocalyptic movie sets are nothing compared to the destruction we found as we slowly made our way.  Otsuchi was a fairly large town. It is now all but gone. Between the quake damage, tsunami, and fires, there is nothing left. It was a physically difficult journey, complete with dead ends and dangerous crossings. It was also an emotionally difficult journey. The extent of misery is indescribable. We finally came through a burning area and stepped up onto a roadway. The devastation was still all around us, but we were above most of the debris. Most everyone we saw was in shock.

Not knowing the full extent of the damage across Japan, we hoped to find representatives from the U.S. and Canadian embassies waiting for us. We approached some policemen and began to learn how much on our own we were.  We had picked a hotel well inland to better hide from the authorities. Our destination became our hotel in Tono. Tono is about 32 miles from Otsuschi, but because of the mountains, it took about 90 minutes to drive it when we had a car. The police said the roads were out and that we could not get to Tono. We picked up our packs and began walking. Sure enough, we passed more destruction along the way. We walked several miles before we met a most amazing man. At his destroyed town, he took on the project of finding us rides to Tono.  There was nowhere to rent a car because the car rentals were located in larger coastal towns that had all been destroyed.  Sure enough, he found two vehicles to take us a few miles further inland. The couple in one of the cars had lost everything and was still willing to help out this band of foreigners. We were taken to a roadhouse and asked to remain. The man left, but came back again with a woman and her van. Her shop in Otsuchi had been destroyed, but with great warmth and dignity she drove us up and over the mountain to Tono.

I cannot begin to describe the amount of kindness and generosity shown to us this day.  It confirms my beliefs that Japanese people are warm and kind. The activities of the dolphin molesters in Taiji and the porpoise molesters of Iwate are aberrations and absolutely not the rule. There is so much hope that we will see the end of the slaughters and that Japan will become the leader it should be in marine conservation.

Speaking of Taiji, we learned today that the tsunami came there too. The fishing boats and molesters’ boats took to sea to ride out the wave. No thought was given though to the dolphins trapped in the pens in the harbor. Six times the water receded and returned, but did not flood the town. Six times, the captive dolphins were smashed against rocks and screamed in agony. At least 24 of the dolphins perished. Any farmer would release livestock when confronted with a fire. The souls of the dolphin molesters are without light.

For the Oceans,

Scott West

See video interviews that My Edmonds News conducted last fall with Scott West and his teenage daughter Elora after they returned from monitoring the killing of dolphins in Taiji, Japan.

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