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Japan tsunami survivor recounts harrowing escape

A woman from L.A. escaped the wrath of the Japan tsunami by scaling fences and seeking higher elevation. See her story.

February 28, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
As Japan experienced on March 11, 2011, when a tsunami hits, seawalls will shatter, buildings will disintegrate and cars will be swept away. Finding safety is a frightening game of chance.

See raw video of the Japan tsunami as the Ofunato seaport is destroyed by waves

On a trip leading up to the anniversary of the devastating Japan earthquake and tsunami, I stood on what used to be the front steps of an office building in Kesennuma. Los Angeles resident Masako Unoura, wife of famed architect Ted Tanaka, grew up in this part of the country.

While on a visit that fateful day, Unoura had a meeting in Kesennuma at 3 p.m. The earthquake struck when she and her aunt, Noriko, were driving to the meeting. After the shaking stopped, they continued on.

"As soon as I got into the office, they said a huge tsunami is coming, so we have to evacuate right away," Unoura recalled.

She was only about 50 yards from the water. As they got into their car, the tsunami alarms started going off.

See raw video taken in the seaport of Ofunato during the 2011 Japan 8.9 earthquake

A video taken just a short distance from Unoura's meeting shows the sea surging as the tsunami grows near. The two women, only a few blocks away, were stuck in gridlock.

"Every car was so patiently waiting," Unoura said. "They were just so polite ... Maybe we were moving like inch by inch."

Within 30 seconds, the water inundated the inner parking lot. With every additional second, the water came in faster. Unoura had a growing sense they were in danger.

"I knew you just have to go higher, higher, higher," she said, "so that's why I started looking around at the surrounding buildings."

A minute later, the tsunami brought its full force. Buildings collapsed and the water raced inland.

Even though Unoura had no idea the tsunami had arrived, she realized the only way to find safety was on foot.

"We have to get out, so I pulled her arm and then started walking," she said.

Perhaps the most important moment of her life took place seconds later on a street corner. She ran up to a perfect stranger, Daisuke Watanabe.

"I thought that he could help us to find a way where to escape," Unoura said.

Little did she know, Watanabe is in the Coast Guard. When Unoura came up to him, he happened to look down the street and saw the water coming right at them. He wasted no time and simply said, "follow me."

So they did and ran for their lives. With Watanabe's help, they scaled a series of fences, walls and buildings.

Water at one point was up to their chest but, miraculously, they were able to make it to the roof of a pharmacy. Soaking wet and 30 feet up, they accomplished what so many could not.

A government study shows that 42 percent of the people living in the hard-hit coastal areas did not heed tsunami warnings.

Of those people, half were hit by the tsunami. Some thought their cars would get them out of danger, while others thought their buildings would be tall enough or strong enough. Some people evacuated and other's felt it was safe to stay.

Unoura is enormously lucky. Thanks to Watanabe, she's alive.

"Having Watanabe, that was the miracle thing, because if it's only me and an auntie, I don't know what would have been," Unoura said with tears in her eyes. "Watanabe was a total stranger. What a brave guy he is."

When Unoura was rescued from the roof of that pharmacy, 13 bodies were found inside the building.

Thousands were killed in Kesennuma and 1,200 were never found.