Japan tsunami survivor shares lessons learned

Japan tsunami survivor shares lessons learned


by KGW reporter Kyle Iboshi


Posted on August 22, 2013 at 9:36 AM

Updated Thursday, Aug 22 at 11:35 AM

RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan -- The tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011 is considered the most documented natural disaster in history.

And one of the most amazing amateur videos was taken by a volunteer firefighter in Rikuzentakata. It's been viewed by more than one million people on YouTube. The video captures six minutes and ten seconds of action (see the video below this story).

But we wanted to hear the rest of the story.

Yuichi Owada, 49, grew up in Rikuzentakata. He played baseball for the high school. He works in an office during the day, but prefers to be at the fire station. He's been a volunteer with the Rikuzentakata Fire Department for 22 years.

When the earth shook on March 11, 2011, Captain Owada and his men jumped into action. One group of firefighters worked on evacuations. Others raced to close the tsunami gates along the city's sea wall. Owada had gone through a similar drill just two days earlier, but that earthquake failed to produce large waves.

Taking no chances, Owada drove down to the sea wall to make sure the tsunami gates were closed. They were. So Owada pulled out his smart phone and started to document the rising water. Within seconds, the water reached levels he'd never seen before.

One man can be seen on Owada's cell phone video jumping on his bicycle and pedaling toward higher ground. As the water gained strength, Owada jumped from his vantage point on the sea wall and got into the fire truck. The man on the bicycle climbed onto the fire engine as Owada pulled away in reverse.

"If he didn't jump onto the fire engine, he would have lost his life," said Captain Owada. He drove backwards for one block, before he could turn around and speed toward higher ground. With his smart phone still recording, Owada steered toward safety and cried for everyone to escape. "I just kept yelling, 'Quick, quick, run, run.'"

Turning back, Owada could see the town he grew up in being destroyed. Homes appeared to explode as the tsunami crashed into their walls. Neighbors ran for their lives.

"You just can't imagine that such a huge disaster would hit you directly. You're just not ready for that," said Owada. Six minutes and ten seconds later, Owada stopped recording. But he didn't stop working.

Captain Owada and his men raced to rescue their neighbors. Firefighters pulled people from submerged cars, flooded homes and toppled buildings. In the process, one firefighter from Owada's 22-man unit died.

It wasn't until six hours later that firefighters were able to check on their own families. Owada learned his family survived. But his house did not. It was gone.

Owada went back to work. And he didn't stop. His hometown was in shambles and he needed to help.

Related: Volleyball returned to Japanese school destroyed in tsunami

Washed Away: Japan Tsunami Debris