Swept Away: A Miracle at Sea

60-year-old Hiromitsu Shinkawa and his wife fled the tsunami they feared was following the devastating earthquake in Japan. Returning to retrieve items from their home was a fateful mistake.

Hiromitsu Shinkawa Being RescuedAFP/Getty Images
On the third day of floating miles off the coast of Japan, Shinkawa was rescued.
Just before 3 p.m., the earth rumbled under 60-year-old Hiromitsu Shinkawa’s feet, and everything around him lurched — the effects of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Japan last March 11. From the lumberyard where he worked, Shinkawa sped home to his wife, Yuko, also 60, in the town of Minamisoma on the northeastern coast. Expecting the tsunami, the couple fled their house, only to return to retrieve some belongings — a fateful and fatal mistake.

“I ran away …,” Shinkawa told Jiji Press, “but I turned back to get something at home and was washed away.”

The waves that hit Minamisoma reached as high as 61 feet that day and moved swiftly through the town, tearing down the walls of houses and swallowing Shinkawa and his wife along with thousands of others.

At one point, Shinkawa managed to lift his head from the swirling, suffocating water and spied a piece of roof — his roof, corrugated metal nailed to wood beams. He pulled himself toward it, hoisted himself up, and rode out to sea.

For two days, Shinkawa stayed afloat on his makeshift raft, bobbing almost ten miles off the coast in the Pacific Ocean. From the wreckage, he was able to scoop up a white helmet, which protected his head from debris still being tossed around by the waves. He covered himself with a light mattress and a blanket that he found in the water. “No helicopters or boats that came nearby noticed me,” Shinkawa later told authorities.

On the third day, at around 11 a.m., an officer on a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel spotted Shinkawa through binoculars about nine miles away, waving a piece of red cloth. The boat turned on its searchlight, and within 17 minutes, the crew had lowered a lifeboat into the water to save Shinkawa. “I thought that today would be my last day,” he told his rescuers.

It was incredible, they said, that he was alive and able to walk. Still, when Shinkawa was given a sports drink in the boat, “he drank it in one gulp and broke down in tears,” a rescuer said.

“There were so many things floating around at sea, it is a miracle that we found him,” another rescuer said.

Shinkawa, mourning his lost wife, was airlifted to a hospital. Soon after, he moved to a suburb outside Tokyo to be near his daughter and grandson.

Once, last June, he visited his parents, who had returned to the devastated village and moved into temporary housing. His house was a pile of rubble. “I was too scared to look at the ocean,” he told GQ magazine. “I looked at the mountain.”

Later, in remembrance of Yuko, he wrote a poem: “Missing:/How many days later/Will you appear in my dream/My beloved/Wife?”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest