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E L I Z A B E T H T O W N M A G A Z I N E • F A L L 2 0 1 1


was there last spring through a study-abroad pro-gram, but he noticed this earthquake was stronger and longer than others they’d experienced. “It struck me as very strange how a building that seemed very firmly built could suddenly seem like it was made of foam or maybe water,” he said. With classes cancelled, he returned home to watch news accounts with his host mother as after-shocks shook their building. The E-town junior recalled the sound of the Japa-nese automated earthquake warning system that cut into broadcasts when-ever large earthquakes were detected. “The haunting chimes that played at the beginning of the earthquake warn-ing were engraved into my brain,” he said. “I even felt a visceral reaction to

the sound when I heard them in a documentary I watched after I returned to the United States.” Not far from Hendricks and Caudill, Kyoko Akanoma, was exercising at Tokyo American Club gym. The pool, she said, suddenly overflowed down the stairs to where she was working out. “The build-ing was moving up and down, as well as back and forth, like a boat on the rough sea,” she said. “It was very disorienting and lasted three or four minutes. “At first people were panicked but then became calm and orderly while attempting to get home,” she said. Public transportation stopped, so they walked, rode bike or hired taxis. “Many more gave up and spent the night in offices, hotel lobbies, train stations and the public shelters,” the E-town trustee said. The Japanese are not strangers to natural di-sasters, noted Dr. Mahua Bhattacharya, associate professor of Japanese, director of the College’s Japa-nese Studies program and codirector of the Asian Studies program. Nearly 1,500 earthquakes hit the island nation every year, “most of which are hardly noticed,” she said.

The Japanese high-speed rail pauses for trem-ors to pass; skyscrapers are constructed so they sway like bamboo. “Japanese believe in the philosophy of Shinto—that emphasizes the divinity of nature, with its dual properties of benevolence and fury—this helps them develop stoicism toward natural disas-ters,” she said.

Bhattacharya learned of the earthquake on TV at her home in Elizabethtown. Upon hearing that a former student was missing, she concentrated on locating her, as did others from the College. Thankfully, a televised conversation between CNN journalist Anderson Cooper and Jessica Besecker’s mother, Karen Nagyski, alerted the world to the young lady’s disappearance. After six days

with no word from Japan, the missing student and her family connected.

After Shock

A few days after the earthquake, Besecker said she learned of the loss of several acquaintances—a nightclub owner, a friend from another town. “While they all hurt,” the E-town alumna said, “none hurt

me as bad as finding out about Tay-lor Anderson.”

Anderson, 24, of Midlothian, Va., was the first known American victim of the earthquake and tsuna-mi. She taught English in the seaside town of Ishinomaki; her body was found near her school.

The two women met through the JET program and were assigned to nearby areas in Japan. “We’d talk online or send texts during the days at school,” Besecker said. “I held on so hard to hope that she was alright, only to have it crushed. I’ll never forget the grief that washed over me at that moment. I still feel her loss every day.”

Regaining normalcy

Nathan Caudill left Tokyo but remained in Japan several more weeks, using a rail pass to visit with a previous host family in Yamaguchi.

Mallory Hendricks, at her parents’ request, left Japan within a few days but, back in the U.S., was dealing with some personal aftershocks. Post trau-matic stress symptoms caused anxiety and flash-backs, she said. “When someone would sit on the couch next to me or get in the car, I would be very sensitive to the shaking.”

Now, with symptoms all but gone, she continues her studies in Japanese. “I look back on the earth-quake as a learning experience. …I grew up a little in those three days.”

Jessica Besecker, who returned to the United States in August, said the earthquake and tsunami are always in the back of her mind. “I’ll never be able to forget this time of my life, but I can’t let it overwhelm and consume me. …Obviously, you need to stop and take stock of what’s most important to you, then go from there. Pick up the pieces and start to make a whole again.”

Today, Japan cleans up the mess created by the quake and the rushing water. Demolished cars and homes, fishery debris and flotsam are being loaded onto trucks, Besecker said. And, even now, she said, “people are sifting through the rubble to see if they can find any more precious memories.”

Above top: Evacuees seek shelter in the gymnasium of Omose Junior High School in Kesennuma, one of the schools at which Jessica Besecker taught for 3 years. Some of these evacuees were her own students.

Above bottom: Jessica Besecker with a Japanese family during less traumatic times.

“I look back on the earthquake as a learning experience… I grew up a little in those three days.”

Mallory Hendricks

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