"Around 10:30 p.m. my Japanese friend calls me at home and says 'Ted, did you see the news on the earthquake in Tohoku area, and there's a tsunami," said Ted Tokio Tanaka.
Those words made Tanaka shudder. His wife, Masako, was in Japan, in Kesennuma, one of the communities he was watching on television getting annihilated by the tsunami.
Both Tanaka and his wife were born in Japan, but have lived in Marina Del Rey for years. Tanaka is an architect whose Southern California creations have made him famous, including the colorful, glowing and iconic pylons at Los Angeles International Airport.
But on this particular night who he was or what he has accomplished could not help him. He sensed his wife was in trouble- and she was. His wife called him at 3:30 a.m. and said was on top of a drug store roof in Kesennuma, surrounded by water.
"'Please call for help. I might die,' she says. 'But I'm going to fight,' she says to me, and then I lost her. I lost her," recalled Tanaka.
The call dropped out. What followed was an agonizing wait. Tanaka contacted anyone he knew to help. The rest of the time he had no choice but to sit by a silent phone and watch the sad images on television and the Internet.
"Oh my god, you know, my heart dropped. You envision things like what my life is going to be without her," said Tanaka. "You think about all the things you wish you would have done before she left. You think of a million things and I was really praying that she was still safe."
Forty hours passed. Finally, his phone rang, and it was Masako.
"She called me and said 'I'm alive,' and she said she was rescued," recalled Tanaka.
She shared with her husband her harrowing story. She was in a meeting next to the water when the quake struck. Thanks to a history of tsunamis, the town knew a deadly wave was coming.
People ran to their cars, desperate to get to higher ground, but the road soon became clogged. Masako had no choice but to run for her life. She climbed fences and eventually found the pharmacy roof. Two people hoisted her to the roof just as the water was up to her chest. She sat there for 16 hours in freezing temperatures, soaking wet- but she was alive.
"Now that she survived, it's really a blessing in disguise. You know, you realize many things you probably would not have, and I think you can improve your quality of life. But I have to get her home first," said Tanaka.
Masako had bruises and scratches, but she is OK. She remains in her home town of Ofunato, which also was terribly damaged. She's currently acting as a translator, helping a Dutch rescue team sift through the rubble. She said the conditions are miserable, but she's going to stay and help. There's no word yet on when she'll come home.