“It was like a disaster movie – it was surreal.”
Riverina paramedic Eamonn Purcell recalls a moment of realisation in the middle of his part of the Australian rescue mission to Japan six years ago following the magnitude nine earthquake that devastated the country.
On March 11, 2011 – six years ago on Saturday – Eamonn got the call-out to Japan in support of the NSW Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) task force to assist in the aftermath of the natural disaster that caused a nuclear plant in Fukushima to suffer a triple meltdown.
In the hours following, Eamonn found himself at the US airbase Yokota, near Tokyo.
Plans were being made to get the Australian and New Zealand teams to Minamisanriku, a town virtually wiped out by a 20-metre wave.
A rescue team left the base by road at 11pm to travel overnight to the disaster zone – normally a six-hour drive. Eamonn was to board a Blackhawk helicopter in the morning as part of the reconnaissance team.
Before boarding the flight, Eamonn had heard the Fukushima nuclear plant had “blown up”.
The two-hour flight almost turned into another disaster as a snow storm pounded the chopper.
“We could see the ice climbing up the windows,” Eamonn said.
The extreme cold threatened to stop the helicopter in the air, so the pilot plunged down to make an emergency landing at Fukushima airport – close to the nuclear reactor in meltdown.
“We were checked out for radiation,” Eamonn said. “We got the OK.
“From here we had two options. We could board mini-chinooks known as Phrogs that would take us directly to Minamisanriku or we could board a Hercules (aircraft) that was heading to Sendai, which was still some distance from their destination.
Eamonn chose the direct route, which meant boarding a helicopter that had no windows in sub-zero conditions.
“It was freezing, snow was coming through the windows,” Eamonn said.
“We flew into white-out conditions, so we were forced to turn back.”
Eamonn was able to take up the original offer to fly via a Hercules to Sendai airport. This aircraft was the first one to land at the airport since the earthquake and tsunami. The time was around 9pm.
“I was dropped off in the middle of the tarmac, kilometres from the terminal,” he said.
“I was with two American missionaries.”
It was here that Eamonn had his moment of realisation.
The airport was the first location he recognised from the videos he had watched as the disaster unfolded in the previous days.
“My hairs were standing on end,” he said.
“It was just surreal.”
A Hummer army vehicle came out to them and organised a taxi for Eamonn to travel to drive him to Minamisanriku.
“Here I was getting into this immaculate taxi surrounded by destruction – broken plane wings and things turned upside down,” he said.
“Then we were weaving in and out of wreckage (on the road).”
Eamonn again narrowly avoided another emergency when the taxi driver was confronted with a semi-trailer jack-knifing ahead of them, with the truck rolling down a hill.
He eventually made it to Minamisanriku, where he could feel aftershocks every 20 minutes or so.
“It sounded like a train,” Eamonn said.
He soon realised the rescue mission would be more of a recovery mission.
The wave that wiped out the town had reached the fourth floor of some buildings.
An emergency triage was set up and plans were made to send any injured survivors to neighbouring hospitals.
Eamonn was involved in searching 18 buildings – they found very few survivors.
“Our job was to find people who hadn’t got out (of the tsunami zone),” he said.
“But, because of the nature of a tsunami, everyone (trapped in collapsed buildings) had drowned.
“(The residents) were told there would be a five-metre wave in 20 minutes – it was a 20-metre wave that came in five minutes.”
Eamonn described the scene as similar to searching through the Gregadoo tip.
Eamonn told of a good news story that came out of the unmitigated disaster.
“We met a man there whose job was to go to the sea wall to measure the height (of the tsunami),” he said.
“When he realised how high the wave was, he jumped in the car and turned around.”
The man failed to outrun the relentless wave, and the car was swept up with all the other debris along the wave but, somehow, the car managed to float on the crest of the wave.
The weight of debris started to pull the car down from the front, so the man climbed into the back of the car and smashed the rear window to escape the vehicle.
He climbed out and rode on the car until it eventually sank.
The man then struggled to stay above water among thousands of pieces of wood and metal and other debris.
He stumbled upon a cable, which he grabbed on to and held on for dear life, battling to take breaths of air as the wave passed by.
“When the water had subsided, a bloke came up to him and asked ‘are you dead?” Eamonn said. “He just said ‘nope’, and just started walking up the hill.”
Authorities were constantly monitoring for radiation, but in the early stages of the mission the radiation plume was heading east out to sea.
“The (Japan Meteorological Agency) advised that the plume was heading our way,” Eamonn said.
“So it was decided we’d have to evacuate.”
The team was again left with two choices: a long journey around the Fukushima exclusion zone with a dearth of resources or the faster option to travel straight through the danger zone.
“We took the bus through the exclusion zone,” Eamonn said.
“We all had radiation detectors, we monitored everything.”
He said the radiation readings weren’t too high, and Eamonn continued his journey home.
He said the experience was “the absolute pinnacle” of his career.
“A paramedic wants to make a difference – we get a buzz out of helping someone,” he said.
“I didn’t get to help a lot of people, but it was such a privilege and honour to be asked to help out.”
Eamonn, along with the task force Assistant Commissioner Rob McNeil of Fire and Rescue NSW, went back to Japan last year for the five-year commemoration of the disaster.
“It was lovely to see the town where we operated in six years ago moving forward,” Eamonn said.
“When we were first here there were not many Japanese locals still here and so it was good to meet some on the trip – they have been very welcoming.”
They plan to return again for the 10-year anniversary.