PORTLANDER MIKE VOS (known to his friends as Mike XVX) left home in March, planning to spend three weeks documenting the slaughter of porpoises in Japan with five activists involved in Sea Shepherd, an environmental group. But on their second day in the fishing city of Otsuchi, the 9.0 quake struck.
As of Monday, March 21, 12,664 people are still missing after the quake and tsunami; 8,805 more have been found dead. Despite speaking almost no Japanese and being at odds with the locals, the entire Sea Shepherd crew survived. Here Vos tells his harrowing story of escape, edited from an interview upon his return home last week:
"It shook for well over a minute.
We were laughing, kind of out of nervousness. But after the shaking stopped, we heard the tsunami warning, a loud siren in the center of town.
We'd only been there a few days, but we knew of a hill a little ways away and decided to head there. There were people everywhere and the water mains had busted so the streets were flooded. Up at the summit, there was a fire crew and some people, but not many.
We looked across the bay and realized half the town was already underwater. Then, a few minutes later, this big wave came in. It was a jet-black wave. It roared past everything and destroyed every building it touched.
The road was gone and in its place was just a river of mud, pulling along houses and anything in its path. It roared like a river, but it had the raw weight of mud.
Finally, hours later, we walked down to the shore. The village was rubble. We found a few bodies, just washed up on the beach. We thought of taking photos to help the police, but they were so covered in debris that we couldn't see what they looked like and, out of respect, didn't want to touch them."
"I heard this woman screaming in Japanese, out toward the water. There was debris and wood and houses and cars all over the horizon. I looked through my camera's telephoto lens and could see a woman floating on what seemed to be part of a roof.
We tried to find a boat, but every one we could find had a broken hull or something. So then we tried to find as much rope as we could, but the currents were swirling so much that she would be pulled close, almost close enough to get the rope, and then be sucked out again. I remembered the fire truck up on the hill, so I ran back up. We tried to radio for help, but no one spoke Japanese. Eventually, this Japanese woman, Ayuka, appeared and she started radioing for help.
The sun started to drop; it was pitch black outside and freezing cold. It started snowing and we turned on the siren and the spotlight. We tried for over six hours to save this woman.
She was pulled to sea again and we didn't hear her screaming anymore. We'll never know whether she survived."
"We wound up sleeping in our rental cars, running them half the night to keep the heat on. We had blankets and fruit, Clif bars, and stuff like that, and enough water to last a day. Ayuka slept with us because she had nowhere else to go that had heat.
We woke up and the water was still surging. I walked down to the town and found a woman hanging from a tree, nude, twisted around a branch, contorted. It was a horrible, horrible sight. She didn't look any older than me, and I'm 24.
By this time, wildfires had broken out; ash was falling on the town. We climbed over a hill and found a campfire with maybe a dozen people around it. They seemed like the only survivors. A couple of them were fishermen, the ones who we had been trying to stop from killing the porpoises. One of them started getting really aggressive with us, so much that other people had to grab him and calm him down.
But then one woman approached us with food—very generously giving us rice balls. We were amazed that these people wanted to help us, because Sea Shepherd has such a bad reputation in Japan. They think we're terrorists, basically.
It wasn't until we had rested there for about 30 minutes that I realized there was a pile of bodies next to us. It was then that I thought we shouldn't be there. I felt terrible for taking these people's resources when we could just walk out of there ourselves. Because of the language barrier, we couldn't really help much. We told Ayuka we were going to leave on our own, and she cried and hugged us. We gave her the blankets we had in the car and some food and some water and started our walk across the city."
"There were maybe three buildings standing and one was a blazing inferno. The bridges and roads were destroyed, and we literally had to climb up and over houses, across glass and broken wood, potentially with people buried underneath. I'd say we breathed more smoke than oxygen that day.
We had been staying in a hotel that was maybe only 40 miles away, so we decided to head there. It took us three rides to get back to our hotel. We tried to give people money for rides, but they didn't want any more than money for the gas."
"At the hotel, there was no power and it was freezing cold. But we were able to call home. We had been missing for 30 hours and no one knew whether we were alive or dead.
The only reason we survived was pure luck. No one knew how bad the tsunami was going to be.
We were considering staying in Japan and heading south, where the [porpoise] slaughter was still going on. But when the power came back, we turned on the news and heard that the first nuclear reactor had blown up. We knew we had to get out.
We scrambled and hired two taxis to drive us to the only airport still open, in Akita, four hours away. We paid them an insane amount. When we pulled up, I was incredibly relieved that the lights were on. We bought tickets on the first flight we could find.
I had gone to Japan expecting to see a horror of a different kind, I expected to see porpoises and dolphins murdered. But what I found was so much more different and horrible."
Portland-based humanitarian group Mercy Corps is working with a Japanese aid group to provide shelter for survivors. Donate at mercycorps.org. Also, local artists are raising money for Surfrider Foundation Japan through a benefit sale of Japan- and sea-inspired work at grasshutcorp.com.