The world watched in horror as the scene was replayed over and over: a 30-foot wall of water ripping through Japanese villages such as Minamisanriku, leaving 10,000 of its 17,000 residents missing. But few felt the terror more deeply and personally than the family of 25-year-old Canon Purdy, who arrived in Japan the day the earth turned upside down.
“My sister ... is missing,” Purdy’s sister, Megan Walsh, wrote in a desperate Twitter message to TODAY’s Ann Curry, who arrived in Japan Saturday to cover the disastrous effects of the earthquake and resulting tsunami. “Please help with any news of evacuees.”
“I will do my best,” Curry tweeted back.
Formerly a teacher of English in Japan, where she was highly popular with her students, Purdy had left the country, but returned just before the quake to see her former students graduate. Like thousands of others, including two fellow American teachers who were with Purdy, she was quickly sent fleeing by the nightmare of the March 11 quake and the tsunami that followed.
On Monday, moved by Purdy’s family’s plea and armed with a photograph of the teacher, Curry made her way to the middle school in what was left of Minamisanriku, which had been turned into a makeshift evacuation center.
The good news came a few moments later: “She’s OK,” and “somewhere outside,” other survivors told Curry. Taken to another refugee center, Curry found Purdy, along with the two other American teachers. All three were safe and sound.
Within minutes, Purdy used Curry’s phone to call her frantic family in San Francisco. “I’m totally OK,” she told her sister.
“It was a great relief,” Purdy told TODAY’s Matt Lauer. With no cell phone service after the tsunami and no hope of getting any “any time soon,” Purdy knew that there was no chance that she could reach her loved ones back in the United States to let them know that she had survived. “I had to tuck it away, and hope for the best,” she said. “And hope that they weren’t too worried, and try and do what I could here.”
Death toll rises amid Japan disasterPlay Video - 6:11
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A sense of responsibility
During her time in Japan, Purdy admitted, she had come to loathe the frequent tsunami warnings that would often disturb her sleep. Now, she feels differently about them.
“Everyone here is very concerned and serious about the warnings, and coming from a different culture, I kind of understood, but blew it off a little bit. But now, I will never make that mistake again.” The tragedy and destruction that she’s seen have “been more devastating than I ever could have imagined,” Purdy told Lauer.
Even so, Purdy said she is not in any real hurry to leave. Though she had planned to travel on to India, those plans are now on hold. For one thing, her passport was washed away in the flood. But more than that, she said, she feels she has a debt to the people of Minamisanriku.
“I do feel some responsibility to stay here and help as long as I can. I’m not sure if I’d be a bigger burden or not, but I have really good friends here and people who helped us the whole time.”
Purdy’s mother, Adrian, told Lauer that she understands Purdy’s sense of responsibility, and despite the 72 hours of desperate fear the family endured, she has no plans to pressure her daughter to come home. “I think she got my mother’s itchy feet,” Adrian said.
As moving as Purdy’s story is, it may not be unique. In a nation where even the most basic lines of communication have been disrupted, U.S. expatriates such as John and Jessica Musumeci, who have been living in Japan for three years with their young sons, Zach and Max, and appeared in a subsequent TODAY segment Monday, turned to social networks like Facebook to reassure frightened relatives back home.
Even so, without power or regular access to the Internet, it took the family more than 48 hours to send out a message on Facebook that they were all right. “I apologize for not getting back sooner ... but this is the first opportunity we have had to try to reach anyone. We were able to find a nice couple who rarely enough have power and Internet,” John wrote Sunday. Though he described the preceding three days as a nightmare of aftershocks and deprivation, he assured his family and friends back home that there was good news: “We are all alive and we have a good network of expatriates here in Sendai helping each other out.”
And in a tearful reunion with Jessica’s sister, Monica Cohen, played out live via satellite link with TODAY’s Natalie Morales, the family said that they had been spared the worst of the devastation, and recounted the ordeal of being unable to let anyone back home know that they were safe. “It was so hard to know that they were trying to get in touch. There really was no way to do it,” John told Morales.
“We had very limited resources,” Jessica added. “We had no Internet, no cell phone ... it’s heartbreaking to think that they thought the worst.”
“It’s been 72 hours of hell for myself and my family,” Monica confirmed.
As terrifying as the disaster was for the adults, for 8-year-old twins Zach and Max, the events must have been earth-shattering. But the boys maintained a brave front, their father said. “They were very good through all of this.”
“The first night we had aftershocks every five minutes,” John added. “And they were big.”
Still, the family counts itself as fortunate. They are running low on food and water, they said, but they’re surviving.
“In our immediate area, we were so lucky,” Jessica said. “We escaped the devastation that we’re literally just miles from ... to think that the people who have been so good to us here in Japan are so devastated and the supplies are so low. The people of Japan really need help.”
That was the Musumecis’ message. The family of Canon Purdy had a more personal one, this one for Ann Curry.
“Ann Curry I love you,” Megan Walsh tweeted. “Thank you for finding my sister.”