Washington native comes out of Japan safely
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Standing at the passenger platform of a Tokyo train station as weary Japanese citizens packed cars headed points north and south on Saturday, former Washington County resident Rachel Mihalovich Osgood and her husband Ken Osgood had a decision to make.
Was the best route out of Japan toward the north in the town of Narita, despite warnings that the airport was closed and flights were grounded? Or should they head south to Osaka, where the airport was open but they had to wait 30 hours for a flight and the town faced the looming threat of a tsunami?
The couple's week-long trip devolved into chaos following Friday's earthquake and tsunami, so staying in the country any longer than necessary wasn't an option.
When Rachel saw the New Zealand flight attendant who told her Narita International Airport was open on a train headed that way, she took it as a sign that going north was their best chance of getting out of the country. About half an hour into the trip, the couple got a call warning them of a leaking nuclear reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi Atomic Complex north of Tokyo.
The irony of the situation wasn't lost on Ken, a Stanley Kaplan Visiting Professor of American Foreign Policy at Williams College in Massachusetts. He had been invited to Tokyo University to speak about the "Atoms for Peace" program, an initiative that was created in the 1950s to alleviate Japanese citizens' fears of atomic bombs by highlighting the benefits of atomic energy.
"We got all of these things we've heard and read discussing the effects of radioactivity and nuclear fallout, so I think it hit us in a different way," he said.
By that point, Rachel said she was willing to do anything within her power to get out of the country.
"I had no hope. I was willing to spend Saturday night in an airport, to pay any amount of money, especially once we found out the reactors were leaking, to get out of Japan," she said from her home in Williamstown, Mass.
Only hours away from the experience that began with the quake hitting as the couple traveled to Tokyo from Kyoto on a bullet train on Friday, Rachel's voice trembled as she recounted the experience Sunday afternoon. It wasn't the structural damage, which she saw little of in Tokyo, or the wobbling train that she said "rocked like a boat" during the quake, or even the thousands of citizens converging on schools and libraries for shelter that caused her the most duress, she said.
It was the uncertainty of whether the airport was open and allowing flights to leave, whether the couple would avoid another massive quake, tsunami or radiation sickness, and whether they would ever make it home to their daughter and son, that caused her to break down at moments.
Her Facebook message Friday afternoon captured her emotions: "Barely hanging in there. No way to get to the airport, people's phone alarms predicting another powerful quake to hit here soon. ... Trying not to cry. Just want to get home and see my kids."
With the aid of countless strangers and of Ken's father Franklin Osgood, who found the couple lodging at Four Seasons Tokyo and researched available plane and train tickets, the Osgoods landed in Albany, N.Y., Sunday afternoon on the flight they had originally booked to return home. Not only that, but Rachel received word that trains headed in the southern direction toward Osaka had been swept away by the tsunami.
From the fortuitous circumstances that led them north rather than south, to the calming influence of Japanese citizens who comforted her during jarring aftershocks, to the bands of English-speaking tourists they encountered who offered help, Rachel said she felt divine intervention in every step of their journey home. But even with that feeling, she said she held her breath until the moment the flight out of Narita was in the air.
"All 82 of us [on the flight] started applauding when the wheels came up and we were off of the ground," she said.
First Published March 14, 2011 12:00 am