When the 9+ magnitude earthquake hit Japan on March 11, 2011, teachers Naoko Utsumi and Koharu Hayashi had to evacuate many kindergarten students who had disabilities. Since the earthquake quickly triggered a major tsunami, they had very little time to get as far inland as possible to a safe community center.
But inland wasn’t far enough: when the tsunami crashed ashore, the water not only reached the building, but rose to the second floor. The children, along with scores of others already there, clambered to the roof. All too soon, the center was surrounded by water and rubble. To make matters worse, something caught fire on the surface of the water, turning the building into an island surrounded by a sea of fire. Just before her mobile phone battery died, Ms. Utsumi emailed her son, Naohito:
“At a community center. Sea of fire.
Maybe this is it. Do our best.”
Naohito, who was 10,000 kilometers away in London at the time, tweeted his mother’s situation and asked for help from anyone who saw the message.
@inosenaoki 障害児童施設の園長である私の母が、その子供たち10数人と一緒に、避難先の宮城県気仙沼市中央公民館の3階にまだ取り残されています。下階や外は津波で浸水し、地上からは近寄れない模様。もし空からの救助が可能であれば、子供達だけでも助けてあげられませんでしょうか。— 鈴木修一 (@shuu0420) March 11, 2011
In Tokyo, Shuichi Suzuki saw and retweeted it with a call-out to the Vice Governor of Tokyo, @inosenaoki, in his retweet. The Vice Governor saw it and alerted the Disaster Defence Director of Tokyo’s Fire Department, who happened to be in a nearby office, to send help.
As dawn broke, a helicopter made its way to the community center to look for signs of life. The pilot spotted the huge crowd of stranded people still on the roof. He sent for help, and eventually, several more helicopters took turns rescuing more than 400 people. Everyone made it out safely.