On March 11, when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake rocked the northeastern coast of Japan, most people on the island of Oshima scrambled for higher ground while fisherman 68-year-old Susumu Sugawara jumped into Sunflower, his trusty fishing boat of 42 years, and headed out deep to sea to meet the giant waves head-on.
Says Sugawara to CNN, “I knew if I didn’t save my boat, my island would be isolated and in trouble.”
As he passed the fishermaen’s abalone boats, Sugawara waved good-bye, apologizing that he couldn’t save them all, though he had no way of knowing if he’d even be able to save himself from nature’s devastating fury.
When the first wave rolled towards him, Sugawara was stunned by the magnitude of this wave. Many times he’d encountered 16 foot waves but this one was at least four times that size.
“My feeling at this moment is indescribable,” he told CNN. “I talked to my boat and said you’ve been with me 42 years. If we live or die, then we’ll be together. Then I pushed on full throttle.”
Sugawara described what happened next: “The wave was like a mountain. I started climbing and when I got to the top, the wave started breaking. Time and time again I knew I had to break free. Finally I closed my eyes and felt dizzy. When I opened them, I could see the horizon again, so I knew I’d made it.”
Others from Oshima attempted the same incredible feat in their boats, but none are known to have survived. Eventually Sugawara found himself carefully navigating back to his devastated island in total darkness with the fires raging in the town of Kesunnuma three miles away as his only guide.
From that day on and for twenty days, Sugawara and Sunflower made hourly trips to the mainland. According to CNN, the pair were the only salvation to the mainland for the first two weeks following the catastrophe. Without them, Oshima would have been completely cut off. Sugawara doesn’t ask his passengers for money if they have none. For those who can afford to chip in, he only asked for $3.50 for fuel.
Tadaomi Sasahara, owner of Oshima’s supermarket, told CNN that he gave away all the food in his store. Islanders, he said, shared what food they had in their homes with each other. Sasahara now makes runs to the mainland with Sugawara and Sunflower.
“Everyone used to look out for themselves on this island,” he told CNN. “But after this, the whole community is now helping each other.”
From great tragedy often comes great heroism, and Sugawara and Sunflower will certainly be remembered among the heroes of what was one of Japan’s darkest hours.
How do you face unexpected tragedy when it strikes? Will you face it head on and help others, or will you complain or run away? Let’s all be inspired by this brave and selfless fisherman to think of the common good instead of ourselves!
This video is from CNN, broadcast Sunday, April 3, 2011.