For Lake Stevens woman, wait for word from parents in Japan was a nightmare

Waiting was a nightmare, but for Kiyoko Nelson it took less than a day to learn that her parents are safe in Japan.

“My heart aches for those who are still waiting,” the Lake Stevens woman said.

Over coffee Friday, she relived fears she felt after seeing those first shocking images of

the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck her homeland and the killer tsunami that followed.

It was late on March 10 — the afternoon of March 11 in Japan — when Nelson’s phone rang. She was up reading. Her husband Christopher Nelson and their 7-year-old daughter Mia were asleep.

The caller, a Japanese friend who lives in Issaquah, told her to turn on a TV.

Seeing the news, she thought she was looking at boats in the ocean. “They were cars under water,” she said.

Nelson, 41, could hardly believe what she saw next — a report of a 30-foot-tall tsunami warning for Kujyukuri Sotobou. That’s a beach a 15-minute drive away from her parents’ home in Japan’s Chiba Prefecture. Their community, Oamishirasato, is in suburban Tokyo.

Instead of the huge tsunami, Nelson said a much smaller wave slammed ashore near her parents’ home, damaging about 1,000 nearby houses.

In Lake Stevens, Nelson was frantic as she tried for hours to reach her parents, Masako and Kuwazo Nagashima. The 10-hour wait to hear if her mother was alive, dead or missing was “literally a nightmare,” she said.

Calling repeatedly by cell phone and land line, Nelson found that phones in Japan were dead. She eventually received a text message from her sister who had reached their 65-year-old father, Kuwazo Nagashima. He was in his Tokyo office when the quake struck. Unable to make it home, he spent the night there.

No one had reached their mother, Masako Nagashima.

During those long hours of uncertainty, Nelson’s mind raced. “I thought maybe she’d been evacuated. I kept thinking she should be alive. There was a chance she could be dead,” she said. “What was being shown on TV, it was terrible.”

Nelson’s 68-year-old mother would later tell her daughter that her cell phone wasn’t charged and the power had gone out. After the quake shook her house, she had simply gone to bed.

Nelson’s brother in Tokyo made a treacherous drive, in black-out conditions, to check on their mother. The drive that normally takes 45 minutes took him three hours. He drove with his wife and 6-year-old so the family wouldn’t become separated.

“My brother got there, and called right away,” she said. He told Nelson that when he arrived, their mother expressed surprise that his whole family would drive all that way to check on her.

In the first several days after the quake, Nelson spoke often with her family via Skype, the Internet service that facilitates calls over the Internet.

Now, more than a week after the quake, the disaster has ballooned to include a radiation crisis from damaged nuclear power plants. Nelson said her mother has been more concerned about earthquakes that just keep coming.

A 4.0-magnitude aftershock hit her parents’ area Thursday night. A friend who was on an airline flight crew last week told Nelson about earthquakes in Tokyo. “It’s still shaking,” Nelson said.

Her family has sent photos showing bare grocery shelves. Nelson said her parents have rice and other food to last a week or more. More than food or water, gasoline is in short supply. On Friday, Nelson said, there was no gas available in her parents’ town.

Nelson has lived a decade in the United States. She moved here from Florida about five years ago. Originally from Tokyo, she worked for Northwest Airlines. She visits Japan twice a year, spending more than a month there every summer.

Her daughter Mia, who attends Highland Elementary School in Lake Stevens, has also gone to school in Japan. “When I told Mia everybody she knew there was fine, she literally took a deep breath,” Nelson said.

Nelson’s heart is heavier.

Her father’s company has a branch office in the hardest-hit area. “I don’t know if these people are alive,” she said. She believes everyone in Japan will lose someone they know. “And people here in Washington have major connections to Japan,” she said.

Now, she said, the first thing Japanese people ask each other is “How’s your family?” or “Is everyone OK?”

“This is not somebody else’s story. It’s your story,” Nelson said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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