Japan’s most famous survivor goes home, alone

Sumi Abe, 80, is rescued from her tsunami-destroyed home in Ishinomaki, Japan, on March 20. Likely the most famous of the tsunami survivors, Mrs. Abe has come to personify the enduring spirit that many believe will help Japan overcome its worst crisis since World War II. (Asahi Shimbun via Associated Press)

http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/982838–japan-s-most-famous-survivo…

ISHINOMAKI, JAPAN—The last time Sumi Abe left home, a helicopter pulled her up from the rubble after she had been trapped with her grandson for nine days from the March 11 tsunami.

Returning six weeks later, Abe, perhaps Japan’s most famous tsunami survivor, was alone on a bus, just another elderly woman in search of food, medicine and missing friends and relatives. “I’m looking for my doctor,” she says, sitting by chance next to a reporter on a bus to her home in Ishinomaki, a city of 160,000 where more than 6,000 are registered as dead or missing. “Everybody is in a different place now than they were before.”

Though using a cane for the first time, she insists on carrying her own bags. “I’m fine, but my hands and legs still ache, and my nerves are not so good,” she says, her skin wrinkled from her ordeal. “Imagine experiencing a tsunami like that at my age. I am 80 years old.”

With patience and determination, Abe personifies Japan’s struggle to overcome its worst crisis since the war. Like many others, she often has to fend for herself, despite a massive national and international aid effort, and has little energy to think about the future.

Abe doesn’t seem to realize that people around the world have seen videos of rescuers finding her teenage grandson Jin waving for help atop a demolished home and then hoisting both up to a helicopter.

After spending five days recovering in an Ishinomaki hospital, she and her grandson have been staying with relatives in Sendai, about 90 minutes away by bus. Jin, who has a bad leg from the ordeal, is looking for a new high school in Sendai, she says.

She says she’s lucky not to be stuck in a shelter. The government says more than 140,000 survivors are still living in about 2,500 evacuation centres, where more than 200 people, mostly seniors, have died from cold weather and illness since March 11, according to local media reports. Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Tuesday he’s hoping to move most people out of shelters into about 100,000 temporary housing units by mid-August, more than four months away.

Food, blankets and other aid from Canada and elsewhere are now piling up in school gyms and community centres across the 600-kilometre long coastal disaster zone. Volunteers from across Japan have been pouring into Ishinomaki to serve hot meals to hundreds of people enduring long lines.

Abe, however, says she doesn’t want food, bus fare or any other offering. She just wants to find missing people. “I don’t want to cause trouble for anybody,” she says. “Somebody told me I was in the news but I am not interested in that. I am embarrassed about what happened. I can take care of myself.”

She says she’s always been independent since her husband died 23 years ago, though her children often brought her food and water, and dropped off their kids to stay with grandma. “I was lucky because they brought me food and water the day before the tsunami.”

When the quake hit, Abe was too feeble to run up the steep nearby hills. Since her home in Minami-hama was more than a kilometre from the sea, she thought a warren of factories and solid buildings would block the sea’s advance. But the tsunami moved their home off its foundations, trapping her in the kitchen under wreckage. Shivering under a blanket, she and her grandson survived on 8 cups of yogurt, a bottle of Coke and a few water bottles. “I counted everything. We had just enough to survive.”

Stuck in wet clothing, she endured nights in sub-zero temperatures in total darkness, and long days where helicopters passed overhead without stopping. “I prayed most of the time,” she says. She remembered a trip to Nara, the ancient capital of Japan and site of some of its holiest temples and shrines. “I used to go to the shrine near my home every week, and I prayed that God would save me.”

Her son Akira, 57, refused to believe that Abe and Jin, 16, were dead, according to Kyodo news. He knew his mother was tough and patient, like many of her generation. After the quake, his son Jin managed to make a 50-second call on his cellphone to his brother. He said the house was destroyed, but he and his grandmother were surviving in the kitchen.

Finally, on a Sunday nine days after the tsunami, four rescuers saw Jin calling out from a rooftop, and a helicopter lifted them up to safety. “They held onto me and told me not to look down. I closed my eyes, and they pulled me up. It was terrifying.”

Abe says she survived because she never gave up hope. “I am 80 years old, and I had a good life,” she says, laughing with a glint in her eye. “I guess it just wasn’t my time.”

 

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/apr/24/japans-most-famous-tsunami-su…

ISHINOMAKI, Japan | Riding a bus, the 80-year-old lady with sparkling eyes laughs when asked how she escaped the tsunami.

“I didn’t escape it. I was the one they found trapped in my home for nine days,” Sumi Abe says on a bus to Ishinomaki, a city of 160,000 where more than 6,000 are registered as dead or missing. “That was my experience of the tsunami. And I am 80 years old.”

Perhaps the most famous of the tsunami survivors, Mrs. Abe personifies the enduring spirit that many believe will help Japan overcome its worst crisis since World War II. Her plight also shows how thousands of tsunami victims still have little choice but to fend for themselves, despite a massive national and international aid effort.

She is alone on the bus, going back to her old neighborhood to see whether she can get a prescription from her doctor, if he’s still alive. “I don’t know if I can find him,” she says. “Everybody is in a different place now than they were before.”

Mrs. Abe doesn’t seem to realize that people around the world have seen videos of rescuers finding her teenage grandson Jin waving for help atop a demolished home and then hoisting both of them up to a helicopter.

Of the estimated 500,000 tsunami survivors who lost their homes, she perhaps endured more than anyone else. Her skin is still rippled from nine days of exposure to damp winter weather, surrounded by a swamp of dead neighbors.

After spending five days recovering in an Ishinomaki hospital, she and her grandson have been staying with relatives in Sendai city, about 90 minutes away by bus. Jin, who has a “bad leg” from the ordeal, is looking for a new high school in Sendai, she says.

“I’m fine, but my hands and legs still ache, and my nerves are not so good,” Mrs. Abe says. Though using a cane for the first time, she insists on carrying her own bags, and won’t accept money for bus fare, food or any other offering. She just wants to be left alone. “I don’t want to cause trouble for anybody,” she says. “Somebody told me I was in the news, but I am not interested in that. I am embarrassed about what happened. I can take care of myself.”

After her husband died 23 years ago, her children often brought her food and water, and dropped off their children to stay with her. “I was lucky because they brought me food and water the day before the tsunami.”

When the March 11 earthquake hit, many villagers ran to hills. But she was too old to run, Mrs. Abe says. Along with Jin, she stayed in her house in Minamihama, hoping to ride out the wave. Her house was more than a half-mile from the seaside, and a warren of factories and solid buildings would block the sea’s advance, she thought.

But the tsunami demolished everything in sight and ripped her home from its foundation.

Trapped in the wreckage, she couldn’t move, and shivered under a blanket that Jin put over her. She was lucky to have been trapped in the kitchen. “I counted everything we had left: eight cups of yogurt, one bottle of Coca-Cola, a few water bottles. We had just enough to survive,” she says.

Stuck in wet clothing, she endured freezing nights in total darkness and long days in which she heard helicopters overhead, but no rescuers came. “I prayed most of the time,” she says. Mrs. Abe recalls a trip to Nara, the ancient capital of Japan and site of some of its holiest temples and shrines. “I used to go to the shrine near my home every week, and I prayed that God would save me.”

Her son Akira, 57, refused to believe that Mrs. Abe and Jin were dead, according to Kyodo news. He knew his mother was tough and patient, like many of her generation. After the quake, his son Jin managed to make a 50-second call on his cellphone to his brother. He said the house was destroyed, but he and his grandmother were surviving in the kitchen.

Efforts to find the pair failed until one Sunday, nine days after the tsunami, when four police officers saw the teenager calling for help on a rooftop.

Mrs. Abe says she never gave up hope. “I am 80 years old, and I had a good life,” she says, laughing with a glint in her eye. “Imagine an experience like that at my age. I guess it just wasn’t my time.”

Arriving at Ishinomaki station, she let everybody else get off the bus first. “I was the last survivor to be found,” she says. “So I want to get off the bus last as well.”

photo above by Asahi Shimbun via Associated Press, photos below by Christopher Johnson

Soldiers look for missing bodies in the wreckage of the Ishinomaki neighborhood where Sumi Abe was rescued after being trapped in her home for 9 days. 

A Buddhist temple and some trees are among the only things standing in the Ishinomaki neighborhood where Sumi Abe was rescued after being trapped in her home for 9 days. 

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