It was a typical March day in Kesennuma, Japan, blustery with the threat of snow, and Jessica Besecker had made the mistake of wearing shorts to school.
That morning, the 24-year-old had promised to pick up another American schoolteacher after school. She spent the day at Matsuiwa Junior High School in a flurry of preparation for graduation the following day.
At 2:46 p.m., Besecker was typing in the staff room when she felt the earth move. She looked over at another staff member sitting near her, a female student on the phone and another girl standing in the doorway.
All four froze.
The girl in the doorway began to cry, then crouched on the floor with the other student, and Besecker put her arms around them.
Besecker remembered the 7.2-magnitude quake that had hit the country two days earlier and wondered why they didn’t know this was coming.
The bigger the jolts became, the tighter they gripped one another. Spotting a cabinet full of glasses above them, Besecker pulled the girls to one side to protect them.
Another member of the staff, blood on his hands and face, rushed into the room to get on the PA system. Besecker pushed the girls outside the door. There was blood everywhere on the man, but he searched for the system, and only when he figured out it wouldn’t work did he stand still for Besecker and the other staff member to dab at him with tissues.
As they cleaned his wound, the quaking subsided.
Outside the school, the male students bragged to Besecker and the other teachers that they weren’t scared; they were tough. Many of the girls cried.
Besecker tried to comfort the students, but the Japanese words she had accumulated over 21 / 2 years failed her. Instead, she made shushing noises and rubbed their backs.
And then she remembered her mother and realized the news that America would wake up to. When Besecker took out her phone, the kids asked her how she could be on the Internet at a time like this. Besecker explained that while their moms were in Kesennuma, hers was very far away. They nodded. She posted on Twitter: Huge “quake. Will update later. So far it’s all ok. Kids are safe.” It would be the last her mother would hear from her for seven days.
Matsuiwa Junior High School lies close to the coast but high above ground. So minutes later, when the tsunami rose, Besecker could see the giant wave stretched across the horizon, its white crest advancing.
The tsunami alarm went off. The announcements were in Japanese, and Besecker couldn’t understand them. As alarms sounded, she thought of the friend she’d promised to pick up. When she asked the principal if she could leave, he told her: “Impossible. The roads have all been washed out.”
Besecker saw something catch fire. It was boats out in the harbor, and the boats were carrying the fire into the town on the wave. It looked like a huge wall of fire.
Aftershocks began to rock Kesennuma, and it became unsafe to go back into the school building. To Besecker, it felt like standing on a wooden floor, with someone underneath pushing up separate planks all around her.
Snow fell that afternoon, and the wind picked up. The kids were shivering in their uniforms; Besecker shivered in her shorts.
The teachers rushed to gather metal buckets and wood from school projects to make small bonfires. Some of the boys found tents that they had used for Sports Day. Other kids got tatami mats out of the judo house so they didn’t have to sit on wet dirt. The students huddled inside the tents for warmth.
A few snack cakes and drinks that had been prepared for graduation were doled out. Besecker had Girl Scout cookies in her bag and invited the children to taste “American” cookies.
As night fell, news came of what the rest of Kesennuma looked like. The waters had gone up to the second floor of a nearby building. The roads were washed out.
Some of the students’ parents came to pick them up, but others were left behind and climbed into the school bus to sleep.
The other teachers crawled into their cars. Huddling in her vehicle under a tiny blanket, Besecker still had no idea of how bad the damage was.
She had heard it was a 7.9-magnitude quake, not a 9.0.
She learned that the friend she was supposed to pick up that day was safe. But she didn’t yet know that another close friend and teacher, with whom she had just gone on a two-week vacation to Seoul, had died on her bicycle in the tsunami wave.
She didn’t know that others would go missing or die too: the owner of a local dance club, a chef, a friend from the Kesennuma bars.