KOBE – When Miyuki Hayakawa enrolled in her high school’s environmental and disaster management course here in 2002, she wasn’t interested in the field.
Little did she know that a new chapter in her life would begin.
The program was established at the prefecture’s Maiko High School after the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake as the nation’s first such course. The aim was to use the lessons learned from the event to promote human resources efforts to help local communities in the event of a disaster.
Hayakawa’s mother, 43, was one of more than 6,400 victims who died in the powerful quake that struck Kobe and the surrounding area early in the morning on January 17, 1995. She was a second grader at the time.
Each time the anniversary of the disaster approached, she felt depressed. She just didn’t want to know anything about earthquakes.
Despite this, Hayakawa took the course because she was told that she could also study welfare. She thought that completing the course might improve her chances of finding a job because she wanted to get one right after high school.
She soon realized that she had made a mistake in her choice. She told the course leader, Seiji Suwa, almost every day that she wanted to leave the school.
But one day, about a month into their freshman year, a former firefighter who led rescue and recovery operations in the 1995 quake visited their class to share his experiences.
Shozo Fujii was then the deputy chief of the Tarumi Municipal Fire Station in Kobe. He was involved in operations in the city’s Nagata Ward, which was on fire.
Although Fujii, now 72, calmly recounted what he saw and ran into the middle of a whirlpool, his hand suddenly began to tremble while holding a microphone as he described his experience at the city’s West Hospital.
“There was one person we couldn’t save,” he said.
When he reached the hospital that evening, Fujii learned that many inpatients had been buried alive when the hospital’s fifth floor collapsed.
He ordered his crew to breach the wall with a rock drill to pull out the patients trapped between the beds under the rubble.
They rescued 41 patients, one at a time, in the operation, which lasted until around 1 a.m. But one person was still missing: a woman surnamed Nagao, according to a patient list provided by hospital officials.
A patient in the same room as Nagao said she had just left the room before the quake struck.
But firefighters couldn’t afford to spend any more time in the hospital and raced to the next scene. The city was in ruins and needed your immediate help.
The next day, he learned from a colleague that the woman’s body had been found. It turned out that she was the only person who failed to save Fujii’s crew throughout their rescue mission.
He remembered the firefighters who kept calling their names for many years to come.
Bitter memories of not being able to save her welled up and he couldn’t hold back his tears in front of the class.
Hayakawa couldn’t believe what she was hearing and lowered her eyes.
She had realized that the person he couldn’t save was her own mother.
She murmured to her best friend sitting next to her, “He’s the one who saved my mom.”
Hayakawa’s maiden name was Nagao and her mother’s name was Yumiko Nagao. Her mother was hospitalized at the time, but she was expected to return home temporarily that day.
Neither Fujii nor school officials knew in advance that the victim’s daughter was among the students. It was pure coincidence.
Hayakawa doesn’t remember the rest of the day as she was so overwhelmed by what had happened. She didn’t expect to know the circumstances of her mother’s death when Fujii came.
But one thing is clear to her: Fujii’s account had a decisive influence on her life and this day marks a turning point for her.
“I gave up the idea of leaving school,” she wrote in an essay during class.
She did not speak to Fujii during his visit to the school and has not had any contact with him since.
But she was relieved to finally know that there were people who did their best to save her mother until the last moment.
In her second year, at the request of her teacher, she publicly described her experiences with the disaster for the first time.
It was something she couldn’t bring herself to do for many years, even though she knew the importance of sharing her story so others could learn from it.
Hayakawa, now 34, made connections with other children who lost their relatives in the disaster and with support groups.
After graduating from high school, Hayakawa traveled to communities devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Northeast Japan Tsunami and those shaken by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China to share what she went through.
She married in 2013 and has three children. This year her eldest child, a 7-year-old boy named Tsunagu, will be in the same class she was in when the Great Hanshin earthquake struck.
Hayakawa said she was ready to tell him what she experienced on that fateful day 27 years ago on January 17.