Tsunami!

By Don Mitchell

Memoir

I wrote this some time ago and had no thought of posting it, but because the tsunami that hit the Samoas has been in the news and in my thoughts today, I offer this as a first-person tsunami account.

On Monday, May 23, 1960, in Hilo, Hawai’i, I was nearly killed through my own foolishness, and then, not an hour later, I began rescuing people who were already dead. I was 16.

I heard about a great earthquake in Chile on the way back from doing archaeology at a refuge cave in the Ka’u Desert. When I got to town I went to Civil Defense headquarters, where I was an amateur radio operator. There was nothing much between us and Chile, but we thought that the South Pacific would give us clues about what Chile might be sending our way, since the shock, spreading in a great arc, would pass through there first. We got crackling reassuring reports: Tahiti, nothing; Christmas Island (now Kiribati), six inches. We knew that if anything was coming, it would arrive around one in the morning.

A friend and I left the radios and went down to the shore to watch for the tsunami. Nobody told us not to. The first wave was small, nothing more than a rapid high tide, not even as frightening as a tidal bore. It wasn’t recognizable as a wave at all, but it triggered the automatic warning sirens, which began low moaning and then wailing. A few minutes later the second one arrived. It washed a foot or two higher.

By then it was after one AM, and when instead of moving water we realized we were looking at the deep lumpy black of the bay’s floor, we were transfixed. The ocean was being sucked out. We stood and watched. We scrambled a little higher on the embankment so we could see better out into the bay. We waited.

Even now I don’t know why we waited. Maybe we wanted to be cool and have something to brag about later, when we’d trade stories with the other kids about how close we’d come to the wave. All I remember from that time – it couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds – is the feeling that I had to stay there and see what was going to happen.

The next thing I saw was a wall of water that seemed to jump up from nowhere, coming at us. I knew that tsunami could do sixty miles per hour near shore, but I had never thought about what that meant, about how much time I’d have to react.

We started running up the embankment, heading inland. But I realized we’d be taken from the rear if we did, so I shouted “Bridge, bridge” and we turned and ran along the embankment and out over the Wailuku River, onto a metal landing-mat bridge that had replaced the concrete one destroyed in the 1946 tsunami. We ran towards the high ground on the other end of the bridge and we didn’t make it there. The wave hit when we were half way across, surging under and through the bridge, coming up around our knees. I grabbed the metal railing and screamed, because I believed I was about to die.

Our town was built in a crescent. Because we were at one of the tips, I could see the wave hump up and slam into downtown. The noise was tremendous. The power plant blew up and the lights went out.

The bridge bucked and heaved but it held. Even now I can hear the metal creaking and groaning, and I can feel salt water splashing my face. After maybe twenty seconds, the rushing sea dropped below the bridge deck, and we let go and ran to the other side. Some men who had been watching cursed us for crazy kids. “You real stupid, play with da wave like dat,” one yelled angrily, and the others hugged us, slapped us on the back, kept asking us if we were all right. An old Japanese man pointed his finger at us and then out towards the bay, and said, “Lucky you folks no die, you know? No can forget dis. Lucky you no die.”

We crossed another bridge upstream and went to our cars. I drove home and said to my parents, who were on the porch looking, wondering what had happened, “It’s bad, it’s bad. I think it’s all gone. I’m gonna try to rescue people.” I didn’t tell them about the bridge until much later.

I went into my father’s shop, got an axe and a crow bar, and drove back downtown where other kids had already gathered at Civil Defense. Somebody passed out red hard hats. We put them on, drove to where the worst destruction was, and began.

In the early-hours bravado we called ourselves the Rescue Squad. By dawn we knew there was no hope, there could be no one left for us to rescue. Everybody we found was dead. We kept at it for four days anyway, but never found anybody alive.

It’s only after earthquakes and building collapses that survivors last for days. A tsunami either mangles and crushes you in your house or pins you down just long enough to drown you. It’s in and out in a couple of minutes at most, but that’s enough time to kill you if you can’t get free. If you’re swept cleanly away, if you’re sucked back out to sea on flotsam or jetsam, you might survive to be found later, maybe clinging to a door, or hanging over a dresser drawer. The shock waves will have rushed on, the sea will have calmed itself, and you’re likely to be rescued from gentle swells.

We found our friend Ken Nakamoto’s mother in the first couple of hours, in a collapsed house. We wouldn’t have seen her at all except that her leg was sticking out from what had been her porch. When we heaved the porch up and got her out she was pale, even peaceful, in her nightgown. There was a little blood on her leg but she was otherwise unmarked. She had almost gotten out into the street, where maybe she could have caught something and survived.

Where’s Kenzo? we asked each other, even though we’d already poked under the house enough to be sure nobody else was there. We said this looking around as if any minute he’d come out from his room and help us with his mom. His room was smashed and his mother dead and we had her body, and we didn’t know where he was, but we started saying those things to each other anyway as if we had dropped by and were waiting for him to come home from school.

She had been drowned, not crushed; so strange to realize it: drowned, but here, inland. The sea was back where it belonged, two hundred yards away. Mrs. Nakamoto’s was the first newly-dead body I’d ever seen. It was the first one I’d ever touched, and she was cold the way everybody said bodies were, and she was smooth, too. The cool smoothness of her arms and legs has stayed with me. The sudden movement of her foot in my grasp as her body sagged when we lifted her has never left me, nor has the feeling of fear that it would slip from my hand and I would drop her, and she would be hurt.

Somebody, the police or maybe Civil Defense, had organized the little open-air buses and their drivers, pressing them into service as ambulances and hearses. The buses were called sampans and even then I caught the irony. Sampan was the name for fishing boats that left the Wailoa River every night, motored past the end of the breakwater, where the tiger sharks were, and on to open sea. Sampans stayed out all night, returning at dawn with their catch.

We lifted Mrs. Nakamoto’s body into a sampan. We laid her out on the floor on her back, because it seemed wrong to put her in face-down. But that meant we had to look at her. The driver, an old Filipino man, headed for the morgue at the hospital. All of us had been born at that hospital, which was a couple of miles out of town. I can’t remember who started it, but suddenly we were making fun of the driver, who was shaking with fear of Mrs. Nakamoto’s dead body. He didn’t deserve this from us, but we didn’t deserve to be sitting on leatherette bus seats around the body of our friend’s mother in her nightgown. We were in an open bus before dawn with a dead body we’d found, and we didn’t know how to behave.

We looked at each other, grinned, and teased him. “Shake-shake,” we called to him, “Hey, Shake-shake, baim’bai we go back downtown for get moah dead folks.” He laughed a high-pitched old man Filipino laugh, and kept on driving, shaking. I was trembling myself; we all were. We agreed it was from the cold.

When we were about halfway to the hospital, we fell silent. I felt around under the seat and found a rolled-up mat, and tried to cover Mrs. Nakamoto with it. Opened the long way it wouldn’t sit properly on her, so I turned it and covered her chest and face with it. I think we all felt better after that.

At the morgue one of the orderlies looked at us, shook his head, and said, “You folks only kids. No good you do dis.” That gave us some strength, and with it pride, which is probably what he meant it to do. We were a Rescue Squad, and had to get back to it. We’d taken our catch up the hill, and unloaded it. Experienced, blooded, we got in Shake-Shake’s sampan and went out for more.

Our high school graduation had to be postponed because there were students who were dead, there were students whose parents were dead, and the Hilo Civic Auditorium where the graduation was to be had been seriously damaged, though not destroyed. We had our graduation two weeks late in the high school gym. I sat on the gym floor in my crepe gown and tasseled hat and my fragrant maile lei. Some of the other Rescue Squad kids were there, and Kenzo was too. We avoided him when school resumed, and he avoided us too. We understood that this was the best thing.

The Guidance Counselor wrote a letter to the paper praising us, and criticizing Civil Defense for having made boys do the work of men. But we had no complaint. We wanted to sit together at graduation, but it had to be alphabetic. I felt a sense of completion afterwards, a feeling that today I’d call closure, but I didn’t know the word then. It was important to have that graduation. I think the town saw it as a sign of recovery, of hope, maybe even an affirmation: our seniors graduate no matter what.

In Hilo there’s an official tsunami memorial, but the unofficial one means more to me. It’s the town’s pedestal clock, green metal pillar and a big white face, which was ripped from its base and washed half a mile up the Wailoa River. It stopped at 1:03, hands almost together, and it’s been left that way, cracked glass and all. They put it back on its stand, near the sampan landing, about half a mile from where we found Mrs. Nakamoto.

Every time I go home I drive down to that clock, and I stay with it for a few minutes. I know the passers-by think I’m just another Mainland tourist, because that’s what I look like now. They see a middle aged bald white guy looking at their clock – just standing, looking, not saying anything, not even taking a picture. It doesn’t bother me that they can’t know what I’m thinking about, that they can’t know what I’m remembering.

I never walk out on the bridge where I screamed and was nearly swept away.



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DON MITCHELL is a writer and ecological anthropologist, born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i (where he graduated from a public high school -- in Hawai'i, that's important). He has published academic works, poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and both published and exhibited photographs. He recently published a story collection, A Red Woman Was Crying, and is working on a novel set on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, where he did fieldwork. He lives happily in Hilo with his college girlfriend, a poet and yoga teacher, whom he lost for forty years but, lucky for him, finally found.

8 responses to “Tsunami!”

  1. […] Chilean earthquake of 27 February triggered tsunami warnings across the Pacific. I wrote about my experiences in the 1960 tsunami here on TNB, never imagining that I’d be writing a companion piece only a few months later. While […]

  2. Greg Olear says:

    You guys are lucky to have made it. Your escape plan was, essentially, “Let’s head to the bridge they built after the other bridge was destroyed in the last tsunami!” But the image of the empty bay…that must have been glorious to behold.

    There is some force that compels you to get close to danger. On 9/11, everyone wanted to get to Ground Zero. A natural impulse, if a self-destructive one.

    And poor Kenzo!

    • Don Mitchell says:

      It’s odd to see comments where there were none after the 3.0 transition.

      The only thing that made that bridge a reasonable idea, given where we stupidly were, was that we were on an embankment — so running back up the little street we’d come down would have put us maybe 10′ lower than we were on the bridge. Actually, I think we’d have survived there, too.

      And we were trying to get to the other side of the bridge!

      Still, being anywhere near the waterfront is what got other people killed.

  3. Don Mitchell says:

    Late-arriving readers need to know that when TNB shifted to its current version, old comments were not transferred.

  4. […] and the local Civil Defense, which as an organization was much more engaged in lava flows and tsunamis than in fallout shelters. Even so, Civil Defense was supposed to be concerned with atomic warfare, […]

  5. […] has seen things most people have not: thermonuclear explosions, tsunami waves (albeit only once), women working molten metal, the transit of Venus, and founding fathers whose […]

  6. […] Adult Care, which on my second loop always seem appropriate. It’s where we took bodies after the 1960 tsunami. That’s the end of the first […]

  7. Glenna C. Couts (Lee) says:

    I “survived” the 1946 tsunami…my uncle Kenneth Clark was on the same school bus..bringing us from Olaa to the Hilo schools.The driver as, he glanced down Mamo St and saw the water receding in the bay..said”every man for himself” probably the most I had ever heard him say. He stopped the bus in the middle of the street leaving 20 or so schoolkids of different ages to figure out what they should do…so most of us continued up Waianuenue to our schools..I went to Riverside and my uncle proceded up to Hilo High…A bit later he burst into my classroom grabbed my hand and said “I’m taking her “..And off we went ..Our plan was simple…Get home…We walked all the way to the four mile bridge where my Grandfather Guy Clark found us..He stopped the Olaa Sugar Co. pickup he was driving, searching for us and did indeed get us home…I was too young to understand all that was happening,,,Before he passed on I was able to tell my Uncle how I considered him my hero..and all of our lives that memory forged the strongest bond..As I consider the people of Puna today coping with earthquakes and eruptions I know that there are many heroes there and know that all of our lives are altered by the events of nature.

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