In the coastal fishing town of Rikuzentakata, which sustained the second-highest death toll of any Japanese city from the 2011 tsunami, survivors readily embrace symbols of hope.
Crescent City maintenance employees loaded the boat onto a Recology truck Thursday morning. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
When residents discovered that a 20-foot boat belonging to the city’s high school drifted almost 5,000 miles to the shores of Crescent City more than two years after the tsunami, they said they’d like to have it back.
The first step of that return journey was completed Thursday when a Recology equipment hauling truck took a detour through Crescent City to pick up the boat and take it to the Bay Area. It will be stored there until Sept. 16 before being loaded onto an ocean freighter, destination Japan.
“It’s kind of bittersweet, because we’ve developed an attachment to the boat, but all along we knew it had to go home,” said Bill Steven, commander of Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office, who has been involved with the vessel’s fate since local deputies encountered a group of men attempting to salvage it from the beach in April. “To see it go home finally ... it’s right.”
Transportation from Crescent City to the Bay Area was hastily arranged when Steven was told on Tuesday that the boat had a ticket across the Pacific, but needed to be in the Bay Area by Sept. 16.
Steven reached out to Recology Del Norte, which had offered months earlier to help with transport. General Manager Tommy Sparrow asked his parent company if it could help. Bennie Anselmo, vice president of Recology, told Sparrow that an empty truck happened to be driving south from Portland, but it needed to be in Sacramento by Thursday.
Sparrow emphasized the urgency: “I said, ‘Bennie, come on! We got to get this boat back to Japan!’”
Anselmo agreed that a detour could be made, and told his driver to head to Crescent City.
“We at Recology felt this would be the right thing to do and return it back to Japan to the people that suffered enough losses due to the tsunami,” Anselmo said in an email.
After being contacted by Rikuzentakata officials, worldwide shipping company Yamato Transport agreed to deliver the boat.
Hideki Sasa, the San Francisco branch manager of Yamato Transport USA, described the free, cross-Pacific transport as a matter of course: “If there’s some chance that we can help, then we help.”
Rikuzentakata’s losses include 1,844 people counted dead or still missing — 9 percent of its entire population. Almost every building in town was leveled by tsunami surges that reached the top of three-story buildings. Only a few concrete structures were left standing. One third of city hall’s employees died, and 129 city employees, including the mayor, survived by spending the night on the city hall roof.
Rikuzentakata’s death toll accounts for more than 10 percent of the 19,000 estimated tsunami fatalities in all of Japan.
The panga boat that landed in Crescent City was owned by Takata High School’s marine science program. More than 20 students and several teachers died in the tsunami, and although the three-story school was still standing after the disaster, it was demolished per the city’s decision to level any building where people died.
In late April, federal officials confirmed that the boat came from Rikuzentakata, making it the first piece of tsunami debris found in California that was positively linked to Japan.
But the vessel was unofficially linked to Takata High School just days after landing in Crescent City in early April after Humboldt State University geologist Lori Dengler posted pictures of the gooseneck barnacle-covered boat to Rikuzentakata’s Facebook page. Dengler had recognized Japanese characters on the boat that said “Rikuzentakata,” a city she had visited shortly after the disaster as part of her world-wide research into earthquakes and tsunamis, and humans’ responses to them.
Shortly after posting the pictures, a teacher from the high school confirmed that the boat belonged to the school.
“Having it back I know would be incredibly meaningful only because the school lost so much — the city lost so much,” said Amya Miller, the city’s global public relations officer, shortly after it was found.
The panga boat washed ashore just a couple miles south of Crescent City Harbor, where a $50 million reconstruction project is under way to repair damages from the tsunami experienced here — created by the same earthquake that spawned the tsunami in Japan. The disasters demonstrated the connection between coastal towns on the Pacific Ocean, even if they’re on the other side of the planet.
“If the boat does come back, it would be lovely to have representatives from the Sheriff’s Office, NOAA and HSU bring it back with them,” Miller said in April, soon after the link was made.
A group of students from Del Norte High School have been raising funds to do just that, hoping to send a North Coast delegation to officially present the boat back to Takata High School.
“It’s cool because they’re a small fishing community and we’re a small fishing community, so we’re helping out someone that’s a lot like us,” said Del Norte High student John Steven, the sheriff commander’s son.
John compared the boat to Rikuzentakata’s “miracle pine,” an 88-foot tree that was the only one of about 70,000 pines left standing after the tsunami. Months later when the tree started to die from seawater damage, the city worked to restore it, showing how important symbolism can be in Japanese culture.
Now that the boat is on its way back to Japan, are the Del Norte high-schoolers gearing up to fly over and present the boat to its owners? Have they raised enough money?
“Almost; one step at a time,” said John Steven. Actually, the group has a long way to go. It has raised $1,170 and its estimated the trip would cost about $50,000 for 12 students and a couple of adults.
Donations can be made at GoFundMe.com/3vvsgc.
The donation website includes a short documentary video made by L.A. filmmakers describing the project.
Locals involved with the tsunami project hope a lasting relationship will be formed between the two high schools.