On March 20, worldwide news coverage of the earthquake and tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan highlighted the rescue of an 80-year-old woman and her teenage grandson, who had miraculously survived nine days while trapped under the wreckage of their collapsed home in Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture. The woman, Mrs. Sumi Abe, is a Yoboku belonging to Tenrikyo Hiyoriyama Branch Church.
When the magnitude-9.0 earthquake occurred at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, Mrs. Abe was in the second-floor kitchen of her home, having a late lunch with her 16-year-old grandson, Jin, who was visiting from Sendai City. She told Jin to hurry up and finish his lunch because they ought to start heading over to the designated tsunami evacuation area. Later she admitted that she had let her guard down because previous tsunami had never reached as far as her house, which was located in a neighborhood 1.5 km (almost 1 mi.) from the coast.
Several minutes later, the house shook violently again. Deciding that they needed to evacuate immediately, Mrs. Abe went to the top of the staircase and was just about to go downstairs when she heard a thunderous roar. Looking down the staircase, she saw the first floor of her two-story home being washed away from underneath them by the tsunami. The walls of the second floor also caved in, and mud and debris gushed up through the opening in the floor that had been a stairwell only moments before. “Jin,” she screamed to her grandson, “the first floor is gone!”
After the tsunami subsided, they found themselves trapped in the kitchen under debris and wreckage. Mrs. Abe was pinned down on top of a cupboard that had toppled over. The space was large enough for her to sit up or lie down, but she could not move around. Jin had slightly more freedom of movement and, being agile, managed to squeeze between small openings in the mountain of heavy rubble. The refrigerator had fallen over—fortunately with its door open—right next to them. The pair managed to stave off starvation by sharing some snacks and drinks that were in the refrigerator. Mrs. Abe explained: “Usually my refrigerator is almost empty. But since my grandson was visiting, I had stocked it with some of his favorite snacks and drinks on the previous day.”
On the first two days after the disaster, the freezing cold and fear of a second tsunami prevented Mrs. Abe from getting any sleep. At the time, the temperature in Ishinomaki City had dropped as low as minus three degrees Centigrade (about 25º F.), and it was constantly either snowing or raining. What’s more, the muddy seawater had drenched Mrs. Abe’s clothes. She managed to reach out and grab a cloth curtain, which she wrapped around her body to help protect her from the cold. It wasn’t until the third day that Jin was able to make his way through the wreckage to get them some blankets from the adjacent room. Shivering, she rubbed her numb hands together while praying that her church head minister’s family and other followers as well as her own family members were safe. Mrs. Abe became a Tenrikyo follower at the time when her mother-in-law passed away 27 years ago. On that occasion, the church head minister asked Mrs. Abe to carry on her mother-in-law’s faith. Accepting his request, Mrs. Abe worked hard to learn the teachings and has now become an indispensable member of her church.
Trapped on top of the cupboard in her kitchen and exhausted both physically and mentally, Mrs. Abe prayed: “I know that I haven’t been doing enough to carry out the work You expect of me, and it really wouldn’t be right of me to expect You to save me now that I suddenly find myself in trouble. But no matter what happens to myself, I beg You, dear God, please save my grandson.”
The thin rays of light that filtered through the cracks in the wreckage grew fainter as dusk fell each day. At those moments, Mrs. Abe would sigh, realizing that another day had passed without anyone finding them. She and Jin talked together day in, day out. If she stopped talking, he would anxiously ask if she was all right. If he stopped talking, she would ask if he had fallen asleep.
On the fourth day, Mrs. Abe started experiencing hallucinations. Once she mumbled, “I had better go fold the laundry,” and Jin reminded her that there was no laundry left to fold. His words brought her back to her senses. Worried that she may be losing control of herself, she began chanting the name of God to settle her mind.
On the fifth day, Jin complained that his leg hurt. He was suffering from a mild case of frostbite at the time. As the symptoms worsened, Jin became pessimistic and started saying things like, “If they have to amputate my leg, I won’t be able to play sports again,” and “I don’t want my life to end at age 16.” Each time, Mrs. Abe would encourage him: “Don’t say such things! You’re definitely going to be rescued, and they’ll take you to a hospital and fix your leg.” Meanwhile, she prayed hundreds of times, asking God the Parent and Oyasama to relieve the pain in Jin’s leg and allow him to be rescued. Day after day, they heard rescuers’ megaphones calling out for survivors, but they were unable to get outside to yell for help.
On the ninth day, however, Jin could see that his grandmother’s exhaustion had reached its limit. Pushing his way through the mountain of rubble and wreckage, lifting and shifting one piece at a time, he finally managed to create an opening that allowed him to reach the roof. Several nails had penetrated the sole of his foot, but he hadn’t felt them due to the frostbite. Sitting on the roof and looking out across the vast expanse of wreckage and debris, Jin called out repeatedly for help but, being the ninth day after the catastrophe, there were no longer any rescuers in sight. A little after 4:00 p.m., a team of policemen patrolling the area finally heard his call for help. They made their way across the mountain of wreckage and finally reached Jin. When they tried to help him, he replied, “Please save my grandmother first. She’s trapped inside.” The policemen looked through the wreckage and spotted Mrs. Abe, but they were unable to get her out. Thereupon, they summoned a rescue team, which needed 45 minutes to remove enough debris to carry her out.
At the time of their rescue, Mrs. Abe was suffering from dehydration as well as hypothermia. In fact, her body temperature was only 28 degrees Centigrade (82.4º F.) The place where Mrs. Abe and Jin were found was near the mouth of a river, about 1.5 km (almost 1 mi.) from where their house used to stand.
Recounting her rescue, Mrs. Abe said: “As the rescue team removed the wreckage around me, a gust of fresh air from outside blew against me face. The sensation of that fresh air is what made me realize that we had been saved. Then, when they put me in the helicopter, I felt warm for the first time in days. It was in that moment that I really felt alive again.”
At the hospital, Mrs. Abe and Jin were happily reunited with their family members. Mrs. Abe’s joy at having been rescued soon faded, however, after learning that her sister and some friends were still missing. Seeing Mrs. Abe’s gloom, one of the nurses held her hand and said: “Mrs. Abe, you have to accept the fact that you were saved and be joyous. It’s up to you to make a new start and live a long life for the sake of those who didn’t make it.” Feeling the warmth of the nurse’s hand spread through her body, Mrs. Abe realized: “Instead of lying down in the hospital, I ought to be going to my church to worship.”
On April 6, Mrs. Abe visited her church for the first time since the disaster. After describing her nine-day ordeal to the followers, she asked the church head minister to perform a thanksgiving service. After the service, she requested that he also administer the Sazuke, the Divine Grant, as she had injured both ankles during the disaster. When he was done, she said: “I guess I should be making the most of this body that God the Parent is lending me. I firmly resolve to do whatever I can to carry out God’s work.”