Words cannot begin to describe the sadness that envelopes the story about Okawa Elementary School. Of the 108 children in attendance, 74 were lost due to the Tsunami that swept the school and much of Ishinomaki City on March 11, 2011. I had the opportunity to visit the location of this tragedy on December 20, some nine months later. It was a dreary, overcast day, with snowflakes falling from the sky in a slow swirling motion. It is said that the day of the earthquake had a similar weather, with temperatures hovering around freezing levels. As I took my camera out, I could hardly keep my hands on the shutter, as the cold wind cut deep into my exposed fingers. The drizzling snow added to the ambiance, as if to remind us of the symbology of the place where we stood. The entire school was surrounded by empty fields that showed remnants of the disaster. Squashed cars swept and left abandoned in the middle of rice paddies, mounds and mounds of cleaned up debris, an occasionally empty house that miraculously survived the waves, bulldozers continuing the cleanup effort, smoke rising from place to place signaling the burning of collected trash. It is clear that Ishinomaki City is but a shell of its former self, the devastation so vast that parts of the city may never fully recover. The school itself was wedged between the bank of a river and a small hill on its backside.
According to my guide, the earthquake manual for the school dictated that the children evacuate the building, and congregate in the open area outside the building. This is the area that is sandwiched by the river and the hill. The school teachers kept the children in this playground, instructing them to await their parents who were on their way to pick them up. This is when the first warnings of the tsunami came. They headed towards higher ground, but were too late, swept by the incoming waves. The few who survived did so by reaching higher ground, only to have to endure the freezing temperatures for hours before being rescued.
As I looked at the area that my guide referred to as the initial evacuation zone, I pointed at the hills located just 30 meters behind, and asked, “so, if they had simply run to those hills and gone to higher ground, would they have survived?”. I already knew the answer before he gave his one word response, “yes”.
What is left standing in Okawa Elementary School is the shell of the main campus, a brick structure whose main circular structure has remained intact. In front of the structure is a memorial, fully adorned with fresh flowers, fruit and drinks. In front of the memorial are two poster boards.
The first one reads:
The two of you had always wanted to go to the Sendai Illumination Pageant. I am so sorry, I guess I will never be able to take you after all. Every year you had said “let’s go!”. If I had known this was going to happen, I should have made the time and taken you there. But isn’t the illumination from the christmas tree the volunteers put together beautiful? It is called “Okawa Elementary School’s Illumination Pageant”. Isn’t it wonderful. Do enjoy it with your friends in Heaven. Your mother.
This is when I noticed the solar panels located next to the memorial.
These panels were powering the illumination for the christmas tree that stood in the exposed wall behind it:
The second poster board, apparently a note written by the students, reads:
Please look after us
Little by little, little by little,
We will move forward