Last week during our long drive along the coast with the team from Germany my husband started yelling, “Stop the van!” He had spotted Okawa Elementary School from a distance. I couldn’t believe we were going to THE school which has become so well-known all over Japan due to the tragic death of over 70 children in the tsunami.

The girls on the team were particularly distressed at the sight of the school and one young woman began to cry. I couldn’t help but gaze at the very high, steep mountain behind the school and wonder why in the world the children weren’t led up the hill to safety after the earthquake. Before we left we made a circle and prayed for the families of the children who were lost.

The desolate grounds of the school

Flowers and food items in memory of the deceased

As soon as we arrived home that evening I eagerly searched the internet for the details behind the deaths of these children. I was horrified and disturbed at what I managed to find out. If you want to watch a sad video interviewing family members click here but have some tissues nearby. I also read several articles, including this one from moderntokyotimes.com:

“The Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki is where the single most devastating loss of life for children occurred. Of the 108 children who went to Okawa Elementary School a staggering 74 children were swept away by the…tsunami…[deeply] traumatic is the feeling of parents who had the opportunity to collect their children but stayed home. Of the 34 children who survived this tragic day the main reason behind this figure is because 26 children were picked up by their parents…only 8 children survived under the care and supervision of teachers from Okawa Elementary School.”

One parent named Katsura Sato who lost her daughter Mizuho stated,After the quake, I heard there would be a tsunami, but she was at the elementary school, so I thought she would be safe…I just want to know how she spent her last minutes.”

From www.telegraph.co.uk: “A heated disagreement reportedly delayed their next steps, with a senior teacher insisting that they should make for higher ground close to the bridge over the river, while another teacher argued the children should climb the wooded hill that rises steeply behind the school. The delay proved fatal. With the tsunami ripping through the 110 homes that lay between the school and the coast and broaching the dyke, the children belatedly made for the bridge but were engulfed.”

From a friend‘s blog: “After the…earthquake hit the small school, the 110 students and teachers made their way per protocol out onto the playground of the school, where they lined up.  Parents were sent a message to come and get their children…On this day, some parents did make it to pick up their children, but most did not.  The tsunami warning came in…It is unclear if the teachers thought that they were safe being so far inland, did not want to stray from their perspective of protocol, or didn’t think it was safe to climb the very steep hill behind them.  (Apparently there were numerous pine trees that had fallen down, making the climbing really treacherous).

Most of the staff and children were told to stay in formation on the playground.  They waited out on the freezing cold playground for 55 minutes. Some have said that the staff were arguing during that time about what the best thing to do…And then the tsunami came.  It first came from the river, and then shortly after that came across the river banks/fields.  It covered almost the entire school, up to the roof, and flooded the whole area.

Only the 26 children whose parents came quickly to pick them up, and the eight children and one male teacher who had attempted to climb the hill were spared.  One little boy shares that the tsunami completely buried him in mud.  He kept calling out for help, and finally another fifth-grader also on the hill came to help him, despite having a broken arm himself.  This boy has done numerous interviews with his father, but tragically his mother, grandfather, and little sister did not survive.

Seventy-five children and ten teachers died on the school grounds.  According to several news reports, one of the male teachers who survived later committed suicide.  It is all too, too sad for words.”

The hill behind the school

Akemi Karino, whose daughter Ai perished at Okawa Elementary School

Indeed, as my friend wrote, “It is all too sad for words.” Speaking honestly, as I watched that young volunteer weeping in front of the school I wished I were more like her, but instead I found myself staring at the hill and wondering, “Why? Why didn’t they just take them up the hill? They would have lived and it wouldn’t have ended like this.” Even now I think to myself, “They had over 50 minutes to flee up the hill…but instead they fled directly into the tsunami. What were those teachers thinking?” But as my friend wrote, perhaps they couldn’t have possibly imagined a tsunami was on its way. So sad, so very sad. Lord, have mercy on the families.