Separated by disaster: Abbotsford man feared loss of girlfriend in Japan

It started as a gentle rumble, something Mike Luzia of Abbotsford had felt hundreds of times during his two and a half years in Japan, where small tremors are a common occurrence.

Mike Luzia of Abbotsford is shown in Japan with his girlfriend Hui Wen Shi of China.

Mike Luzia of Abbotsford is shown in Japan with his girlfriend Hui Wen Shi of China.

It started as a gentle rumble, something Mike Luzia of Abbotsford had felt hundreds of times during his two and a half years in Japan, where small tremors are a common occurrence.

He had just finished teaching English for the day on the small northeast island of Izushima and was working on some lesson plans. The rest of the school, consisting of 28 students and 22 other teachers, was still in session.

The rumble grew stronger and was lasting longer than the typical 15 to 20 seconds. Pictures fell off the walls. Chairs toppled over.

Mike leaped from his seat and joined his fellow teachers in ushering the students out of the building and to the dirt track. It was difficult to keep their balance on the shaking ground.

The quake lasted a full five minutes. The sound of the school’s rattling windows echoed, as if being battered by a strong wind.

Then, it was done. The school, built in the 1920s on high ground and reinforced to withstand a large quake, was still standing. It was in an isolated area, from which the rest of the island could not be seen.

Cellphone reception had died. The public address system was no longer working. As the snow began to fall, Mike, his students and his colleagues did not receive the tsunami warning.

* * *

Mike was about 10 years old when he got in trouble at school for some now-forgotten misdemeanour. His mom, Susanne, decided he needed an activity to keep him out of trouble.

A Buddhist temple, located not far from their home in Bradner, offered Japanese language lessons. Susanne signed up Mike and his older brother, John.

Something about samurai warriors and the honouring of ancient traditions grew on Mike. He stuck with the lessons for two years, and picked them up again for three years in high school.

In 2004, bored by his university classes in computer information systems, Mike took a one-month trip to Japan. He travelled by train, visiting all the big cities.

He loved the quiet, gracious and humble people. He appreciated their work ethic – willing to do a good job without any ulterior motives.

Mike wanted to live there. He switched his major to psychology and obtained certificates in teaching Japanese and English as a Second Language.

He found a job teaching English three days a week at a small school in Onagawa, a Japanese fishing village on the northeast coast, and one day a week on the nearby island of Izushima.

He arrived in 2008, the only Caucasian and the only Canadian in the village of 10,000.

As he investigated his neighbourhood, children would yell, “Mom! Mom! There’s a foreigner!”

He moved into a tiny, four-unit apartment building. His living room fit only a computer desk and a TV, while his bedroom could hold only a bed and a dresser.

Families who heard about the new arrival would invite him for dinner or bring him gifts, such as bags of seaweed, often used in Japanese cooking. If Mike caught a cold, the news would spread and food would be brought to his door.

During a break from school in October of that year, Mike travelled to China to visit some friends. On his return flight, he met Hui Wen Shi, who soon became his girlfriend. She was an exchange student at a university in Sendai – not far from Onagawa – and was working toward her master’s degree in international politics and law.

He liked that she was so smart, and he was drawn to her cheerful spirit and the way she made him laugh.

• • •

A truckload of about 15 people arrived at the school after the initial quake and the subsequent aftershocks. There had been a tsunami, they said, and it had washed over the island.

More and more survivors arrived, including some of the students’ parents. Most were in shock, devastated by having seen family members washed away. About 150 showed up from the town of 600.

Mike was worried about his girlfriend. Hui Wen lived in an apartment in Sendai, but she had stayed overnight at his place while he stayed on the island. He had arrived the previous day, on his 27th birthday, in order to join in the celebration of two students who were graduating from junior to senior high school.

Hui Wen had been planning a special birthday dinner for him later in the day upon his return to Onagawa.

Mike knew the tsunami would have impacted the coastal village, but he couldn’t imagine to what extent.

Several helicopters were sent in to rescue the survivors and transport them to evacuation centres. As Mike’s chopper lifted, he saw the devastation for the first time. Houses were floating on the water as far as four or five kilometres out to sea. People were perched on the rooftops. Some were moving; others weren’t.

Debris was everywhere.

He was speechless as the helicopter flew over Onagawa. Only a couple of buildings were still standing. Everything else was a sea of rubble, including his own apartment.

Mike held on to hope that Hui Wen had survived, but looking at the destruction, he couldn’t imagine how that was possible.

* * *

It was three days after the disaster. The roads were now open, and Mike was given a ride from the rescue centre in Ishinomaki to his home base of Onagawa.

There were no words for the destruction. The building next to his apartment was still standing, but not much else at sea level had survived.

The school where he taught three days a week was intact, because it was on high ground. It was being used as an evacuation centre. Mike made his way to the staff room, where teachers there assured him that Hui Wen was OK.

He was standing at the top of a staircase when he spotted her below. He felt like his heart stopped. He yelled her name.

The two ran for each other, stumbling over the stairs, before meeting in the middle. They collapsed in a bear hug, and at last, Mike was able to cry. They stayed like that for a long time.

Hui Wen had outrun the tsunami. She had gathered at the local playground, along with other citizens, when the tsunami warning was sounded. These warnings were common and people had become complacent about them.

It wasn’t until the water began seeping in around them, like a bathtub filling up, that people began running for higher ground. Hui Wen was with a group of about 20.

She picked up a boy of about five years old, and ran with him in her arms. He insisted he was fine and could run on his own. She set him down and scrambled up the hillside.

When Hui Wen reached the top, she looked around her. Only four of them had made it. The boy and his mother were not there.

* * *

Now back in Abbotsford after a two-week process to get home due to losing his passport in the tsunami, Mike is doing what he can to help the people of Onagawa. He has been speaking to school groups, and wants to raise funds to aid children, including his own students, who have been orphaned by the disaster.

Hui Wen has returned to China. The two will reunite in one of their home countries, depending on whose travel documents come through first. They hope to return to Japan before the end of April.

Mike is not sure how long he will stay, but one thing is clear: He wants Hui Wen by his side, wherever in the world that takes them.