- - Sunday, April 24, 2011

ISHINOMAKI, Japan | Riding a bus, the 80-year-old lady with sparkling eyes laughs when asked how she escaped the tsunami.

“I didn’t escape it. I was the one they found trapped in my home for nine days,” Sumi Abe says on a bus to Ishinomaki, a city of 160,000 where more than 6,000 are registered as dead or missing. “That was my experience of the tsunami. And I am 80 years old.”

Perhaps the most famous of the tsunami survivors, Mrs. Abe personifies the enduring spirit that many believe will help Japan overcome its worst crisis since World War II. Her plight also shows how thousands of tsunami victims still have little choice but to fend for themselves, despite a massive national and international aid effort.

She is alone on the bus, going back to her old neighborhood to see whether she can get a prescription from her doctor, if he’s still alive. “I don’t know if I can find him,” she says. “Everybody is in a different place now than they were before.”

Mrs. Abe doesn’t seem to realize that people around the world have seen videos of rescuers finding her teenage grandson Jin waving for help atop a demolished home and then hoisting both of them up to a helicopter.

Of the estimated 500,000 tsunami survivors who lost their homes, she perhaps endured more than anyone else. Her skin is still rippled from nine days of exposure to damp winter weather, surrounded by a swamp of dead neighbors.

After spending five days recovering in an Ishinomaki hospital, she and her grandson have been staying with relatives in Sendai city, about 90 minutes away by bus. Jin, who has a “bad leg” from the ordeal, is looking for a new high school in Sendai, she says.

“I’m fine, but my hands and legs still ache, and my nerves are not so good,” Mrs. Abe says.

Though using a cane for the first time, she insists on carrying her own bags, and won’t accept money for bus fare, food or any other offering. She just wants to be left alone.

“I don’t want to cause trouble for anybody,” she says. “Somebody told me I was in the news, but I am not interested in that. I am embarrassed about what happened. I can take care of myself.”

After her husband died 23 years ago, her children often brought her food and water, and dropped off their children to stay with her. “I was lucky because they brought me food and water the day before the tsunami.”

When the March 11 earthquake hit, many villagers ran to hills. But she was too old to run, Mrs. Abe says. Along with Jin, she stayed in her house in Minamihama, hoping to ride out the wave. Her house was more than a half-mile from the seaside, and a warren of factories and solid buildings would block the sea’s advance, she thought.

But the tsunami demolished everything in sight and ripped her home from its foundation.

Trapped in the wreckage, she couldn’t move, and shivered under a blanket that Jin put over her. She was lucky to have been trapped in the kitchen. “I counted everything we had left: eight cups of yogurt, one bottle of Coca-Cola, a few water bottles. We had just enough to survive,” she says.

Stuck in wet clothing, she endured freezing nights in total darkness and long days in which she heard helicopters overhead, but no rescuers came.

“I prayed most of the time,” she says.

Mrs. Abe recalls a trip to Nara, the ancient capital of Japan and site of some of its holiest temples and shrines. “I used to go to the shrine near my home every week, and I prayed that God would save me.”

Her son Akira, 57, refused to believe that Mrs. Abe and Jin were dead, according to Kyodo news. He knew his mother was tough and patient, like many of her generation. After the quake, his son Jin managed to make a 50-second call on his cellphone to his brother. He said the house was destroyed, but he and his grandmother were surviving in the kitchen.

Efforts to find the pair failed until one Sunday, nine days after the tsunami, when four police officers saw the teenager calling for help on a rooftop.

Mrs. Abe says she never gave up hope. “I am 80 years old, and I had a good life,” she says, laughing with a glint in her eye. “Imagine an experience like that at my age. I guess it just wasn’t my time.”

Arriving at Ishinomaki station, she let everybody else get off the bus first. “I was the last survivor to be found,” she says. “So I want to get off the bus last as well.”


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