SHIZUGAWA, Japan—American Mary Caitlen Churchill came to Japan last year for the exotic experience of teaching English abroad. After last Friday's tsunami leveled this town and sucked half its residents to sea, she's simply lucky to be alive -- a refugee taking shelter with hundreds of Japanese in one of the junior highschools she once taught at.
"It doesn't seem real," the 22-year-old told The Associated Press in an interview in the school's library.
Churchill came to Shizugawa in August under an exchange teaching program, and taught at four different schools here and in a neighboring village. On Friday, she was studying Japanese during a break in classes ahead of a graduation ceremony at nearby Togura.
The Boston native climbed under her desk during the tremor, but the damage was neglibable -- a bottle of water and books fell ont he floor. But teachers and students alike sensed something much worse -- they had rushed outside to a pitch of open grass, and some said that given the quake's intensity, a tsunami was likely on the way. Tsunami alarm sirens wailed and public loudspeakers warned the wave could be 10 meters -- then 16 meters -- high.
"I was a little freaked out but I thought, we're on high ground (at the school), it won't come here," she said.
The tsunami wave did come though, coursing up fast, first through the school's driveway, then the school, then toward the grassy pitch they were all standing on.
"We all just ran for the hill behind the school as fast as we could," Churchill said, adding that she didn't look back and that teachers were helping pull people up the sleep slope as the brown water full of debris surged toward them. "A couple of people didn't make it. A student. A teacher."
Churchill spent that first night with no real food, no water, and it began to snow as darkness set in. They found shelter in a building -- she wasn't sure what it was used for -- and ate half a rice ball each.
The next morning, she looked down on the town on Togura for the first time: almost the entire village had been swept away, except for the elementary school which still stood. Two days later, they made it to the main junior highschool in Shizugawa, which sits on a hill overlooking the town.
"It looked like a poster for a disaster zone," Churchill said Tuesday, still wearing the same clothes she was wearing when the tragedy struck. Shizugawa looks the same -- a sea of wreckage and debris. She was renting a place near the water, but she has not gone to check on it because she knows it is gone: inside, everything she had here, laptop, camera, etc. She did find her wallet and ID's in the school's rubble.
At the shelter turned school: things are organized. Two meals a day, strawberries once even. Blankets to keep warm.
The day after the tsunami, Churchill was able to send out one email to her family before cell phone reception cut early Saturday, telling them she was safe and would call when she could.
"I made a lot of friends here. I haven't heard from most of them. Hopefully they are safe," Churchill said. "I just feel really bad. I know I will come back one day, and hopefully see a new Shizugawa. But this town will never be the same."