03.13.11

Japan Earthquake: Gripping Survivor Stories

Thousands are still missing, but harrowing tales are already emerging from those who managed to escape Japan's deadly earthquake and its aftermath. From a man rescued 10 miles out at sea to a woman who watched her elderly parents slip away in the tsunami, read the most haunting stories. Plus, complete coverage of Japan’s crisis.

Beyond the unfolding nuclear dangers, Japan has a humanitarian crisis on its hands. Over 500,000 citizens are in temporary shelters, desperate for food, water, and medical supplies. Meanwhile, rescue workers continue to find thousands of dead bodies, with the official death toll, 1,800, thought to be much lower than the real figure. Relief workers in Iwate Prefecture, near the quake's ground zero, say they have just 10 percent of the supplies they need. The economic toll is staggering as well: By one estimate, the quake will cost Japan $180 billion, or 3 percent of its annual output.

Harrowing tales are already emerging from those who managed to escape alive. From a man rescued 10 miles out at sea to a woman who watched her elderly parents slip away in the tsunami, read the most haunting stories. Plus, complete coverage of Japan’s crisis.

Gallery: Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami

Prank Listed Australian Girl as Dead on Missing Person’s Site
Google’s Person Finder, the missing person’s website set up for the earthquake, led one desperate father astray on Saturday, listing his daughter Alice Byron as among the dead in the wake of the tsunami that hit northern Japan. After several frantic hours, Alice’s father Ashley got friends in Japan to confirm that the entry was a hoax. After calling the hospital listed with his daughter’s name, Alice’s friends discovered that the doctor’s name was fake. Other people had been victims of the same hoax, according to Alice’s employer. Alice eventually used a satellite phone to send a message to her family saying “safe. evacuated to town hall center. love you.”

Father and Daughter Reunited With Dogs
Fleeing from the tsunami in Miyagi Prefecture, Masaki Kikuchi was forced to leave behind her two dogs, Towa and Melody. When his daughter Koya tried to get home to rescue them, she was turned away by police. Crushed, Koya assumed her dogs had perished in the tsunami. Two days after the quake, Masaki returned home to find his house destroyed, a car blocking the entrance to his driveway and an inch of floodwater covering the kitchen floor. But when he heard barking, he rushed upstairs to find Towa and Melody waiting on the second floor. They had somehow broken free of the ropes leashing them to a shed outside. “It’s been so stressful,” Koya said after reuniting with her dogs. “It’s so good to see them.” Though they can’t bring Towa and Melody to the evacuation center, she and her father will check up on the dogs every day.

A Miracle Rescue at Sea
Hiromitsu Shinkawa, 60, saw the tsunami approaching and ran home to gather his belongings. Before he knew it, his home was destroyed and he was swept out to sea on what used to be the roof of his house. "No helicopters or boats that came nearby noticed me. I thought that day was going to be the last day of my life," Shinkawa later said. Finally, after two days at sea, he was spotted by a rescue ship an amazing 10 miles from land, waving a red flag he had made himself. Upon being hauled onto the ship, he gratefully drank a glass of water and then broke into tears. Shinkawa's wife is still missing.

'The Tsunami Just Swept My Parents Away'
As soon as the quake hit, Harumi Watanabe closed her shop in Shintona, a now-ravaged coastal town, and drove straight to the home of her elderly parents. "But there wasn't time to save them," Watanabe said. "They were old and too weak to walk so I couldn't get them to the car in time." Watanabe was with her parents in their living room when the tsunami's waves hit. She held their hands, but the waves tore them apart. The last thing she heard was them yelling, "I can't breathe." Watanabe herself barely survived. "I stood on the furniture, but the water came up to my neck. There was only a narrow band of air below the ceiling. I thought I would die."

Running From the Office
In the coastal town of Minamisanriku, half of the population is still missing three days later—9,500 people. Choushin Takahaski was working at a local government office when a tsunami warning went off and 13-foot waves hit. "Most people ran away," she recalled. "Some had to leave the elderly or disabled behind on the second floor. I think a lot of those left behind probably died." Three days later, 42 people were pulled out of the rubble alive. But another of the town's residents is still haunted: "I saw the bottom of the sea when the tidal wave withdrew and houses and people were being washed out… I couldn't watch anymore."

A Beloved Pet Left Behind
Natsuko Komuro was riding a horse in Miyagi Prefecture right before the devastation began; she had to abandon her beloved pet to escape. She jumped in her car and sped away but was soon caught up in a crush of traffic. "The traffic lights had stopped working and there was massive congestion, rows and rows of cars," she told the BBC. On Sunday, she went back to her home to look for her horse, but it was in vain. "Words fail me," she said, "because there is nothing here, the things that are supposed to be here, everything is gone." More than 200 bodies have been recovered in Komuro's area.

Kindergarten Class Missing
When a massive earthquake struck New Zealand last month, John McLaughlan dodged a bullet. A New Zealand native, he had moved from the quake's epicenter, Christchurch, just two years before. He ended up teaching English in Sendai, Japan—the epicenter of this week's devastating quake. The Christchurch quake, he said, was a popular conversation topic with his young kindergarten students. Now he's worried for the lives of those students, who he has not heard from since the tsunami hit. "I just can't believe both places have been hit," McLaughlan told New Zealand's Otago Daily Times. "I just hope they were evacuated." Aside from his young students, McLaughlan still can't locate his sister-in-law and brother-in-law.

'Get Out of There Now!'
That's the cry Ayumi Osuga heard from her husband outside as she was in her room practicing origami with her three young children—all between the ages of 2 and 6. Osuga ran to meet her husband, packed up her kids in the car, and sped away to a hilltop where her family had a home. "My family, my children. We are lucky to be alive," she said upon returning to her home. "I have come to realize what is important in life." Many of her those around her were not lucky. Next door, rescue workers found the body of her neighbor, dead in the fetal position at the bottom of a stairwell.

Searching for Lost Family Members
In Rikuzentakata, a northern town that now is almost totally flattened, Yuko Abe, 54, was in tears at an emergency center. "I am looking for my parents and my older brother," Abe said. "Seeing the way the area is, I thought that perhaps they did not make it. I also cannot tell my siblings that live away that I am safe, as mobile phones and telephones are not working.

A Terrifying Boat Ride
Eighty-one passengers were taken for the ride of their lives Friday when the boat they were on was torn from its moorings, thrown out to sea, and tossed around in a massive whirlpool created by the tsunami. Fortunately, the Japanese navy found the boat at sea and every one of its passengers was airlifted to safety. Watch raw video of ships being tossed in the water here.

Spot a survivor story? The Daily Beast wants to hear it. Send yours to @thedailybeast on Twitter or newsweektsunami@gmail.com.