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Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011
3/11 memories haunt American at No. 1 plant
MITO, Ibaraki Pref. — American Carl Pillitteri was busy working at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant on March 11 when he felt the first sudden jolt from one of the strongest earthquakes on record, and then watched in horror as a 15-meter wall of water swept in from the Pacific and crashed into the complex.
Pillitteri, who was working for a nuclear service company, was on the turbine deck of reactor 1 when the 9.0-magnitude quake started to violently rock the plant and its six reactors.
Monster tsunami then swept in from the sea, smashing into the plant and knocking out the power supply and backup generators for three of the reactors, starting a chain of events that ultimately resulted in all three suffering meltdowns.
The Taiwan-based Pillitteri, 53, evacuated the plant that day and left Japan on March 15. He said he had been traumatized, overwhelmed by the events he witnessed on the disaster day.
But on Dec. 3, he returned to Fukushima Prefecture on a desperate, personal mission and entered the government-designated no-go zone.
Pillitteri felt compelled to learn the fate of an elderly Japanese woman who worked at a local restaurant and who had looked after him during his previous trips to the plant. He also wanted to give her a Christmas gift, and said he would be unable to enjoy the holiday unless he found out what became of her.
"For me, I could not wait to come back (to Fukushima). I wanted to come back," Pillitteri told The Japan Times during a recent interview in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture.
"I cared about (all the local residents), but I particularly cared about her. And I spent last Christmas with her," Pillitteri said.
The woman used to cook for him at a restaurant he frequented in the town of Tomioka, just south of the nuclear plant. He doesn't know her name but believes she is in her 60s or 70s.
He used to call the restaurant the "Hen House" because he thought its name, Ikoi (rest, relief), which was written in hiragana on its sign, looked similar to the English word "hen." As he didn't know the woman's name, he nicknamed her the "Chicken Lady" for the delicious fried dinners she would often whip up for him at the restaurant.
Pillitteri approached The Japan Times, seeking help in his quest to discover her identity and contact her before he was set to leave Japan Tuesday. The restaurant is located inside the 20-km evacuation zone.
Pillitteri, who is married to a Taiwanese, has traveled frequently to Japan during the last 20 years to service nuclear reactors, and he worked many times at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. During his trips, he would regularly eat at Ikoi, sometimes four or five times a week.
After returning to Taiwan in March, Pillitteri was unemployed for about five months and spent much of this time worrying about his friends at the Fukushima plant and the residents of Tomioka, and especially about the woman at the restaurant, who spoke little English but showed him nothing but kindness.
"She was a motherly figure to me, always happy to see me and give me some extra things to eat," Pillitteri said.
March 11 started out as a beautiful day, he said.
But then the first sudden jolt from what would come to be known as the Great East Japan Earthquake violently rocked the reactor 1 unit where he was working.
"I said, 'Hey, earthquake!' and two (coworkers) looked at me (as if to say), 'Are you crazy?' " Pillitteri recalled.
The monster earthquake, the world's fourth-strongest ever recorded, then unleashed a series of long, terrifying seismic waves that shook the ground and rocked the nuclear complex.
"I thought, 'I'm gonna die. This is it, this is it,' " he said.
After the rocking stopped, Pillitteri and his coworkers fled from the building and clambered up a hill inside the compound.
When he reached the top, he looked back toward the coast and saw a gigantic wall of water rising and heading straight toward the plant. He recalls hearing a loud "vacuum sound" made by strong winds that were apparently whipped up by the approaching tsunami.
"When the sea ran out, all the ocean bed was opened up, and it sucked the atmosphere down. And the wind, the wind was incredible," Pillitteri said.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, 2,000 years ago (before people knew better about natural phenomenon), maybe people would think this is the end of the world."
Later that day, he evacuated the complex together with some coworkers who were not directly in charge of plant operations, and checked in at a nearby hotel. They spent a sleepless night at the inn as the series of powerful and unnerving aftershocks continued to shake eastern Japan.
They boarded a bus bound for Tokyo the next morning, arriving early March 13.
En route, Pillitteri saw many cars traveling north. He believes they were headed toward areas near the Fukushima No. 1 plant to rescue family members and help them evacuate from the disaster zone. It pained him to see those people driving north, particularly because he and many of his coworkers wanted to help them in their time of need, he said.
Pillitteri returned to Japan in August for a work assignment at the nuclear plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture. But he wasn't allowed to enter the 20-km no-go zone around the Fukushima No. 1 plant until Dec. 3, and then only for four hours.
On his way into the disaster zone to try to locate the woman from the restaurant, he was impressed by the well-organized way the police and Tokyo Electric Power Co. controlled the traffic and checkpoints on roads leading into the no-go area.
Donning a white protective suit to guard against radioactive fallout, he immediately headed to the Ikoi restaurant, which is located about 600 meters west of JR Tomioka Station. But it was vacant, just like the rest of the evacuated town, its exterior showing damage from the March 11 quake, and there were no signs of the woman.
He said Tomioka is just a ghost town, and he was unable to locate the woman. Homes, once-thriving shops and schools that used to be filled with the sounds of children playing are now empty and silent.
"It's heartbreaking to see all the residential communities and elementary schools empty," Pillitteri said.
The restaurant had been left unlocked, and he went inside to take a look at the quake damage.
"I used to sit right there," he said during the interview, pointing at a photo he took of the restaurant's counter during his brief visit. In the shot, broken glass lies scattered around the eatery, which looked like it had been abandoned in a hurry. "She is the cook there, she talked to me, and (would) come around and sit by me," Pillitteri said.
Evacuated residents who are allowed to briefly return to their homes have to wear full-body protective gear to prevent radioactive fallout from spreading beyond the 20-km limit.
"But it was very sad to see (them dressed like) this. I'm used to this, but mothers and fathers, all the grandmothers and fathers had to do this, right?" he said.
The Japan Times managed to locate the restaurant Pillitteri frequented and identify the woman he desperately wanted to meet again, and reached her through the Tomioka Municipal Government, which keeps contact phone numbers for local evacuees.
But the woman, whose family name is Owada, sent a message to The Japan Times via the municipal office saying she doesn't feel like seeing any of her former customers because "lots of things have happened" since March 11. She didn't elaborate.
While obviously disappointed that he didn't get a chance to see the woman and give her the Christmas present, Pillitteri said he is happy to at least learn that she survived the natural disasters and Japan's worst-ever nuclear crisis.
And he said he now feels he can enjoy Christmas.
"What else can I do? You gave me the information, she's alive," an emotional Pillitteri said during the interview.
While working at the Fukushima No. 1 plant last Christmas, far from his family in Taiwan and the United States, he visited Ikoi to enjoy the festive season for a few precious hours.
He bought a fruit basket and a Christmas card for the woman, and when he walked through the door "her face lit up like a Christmas tree," he recalled.
After the twin disasters, Pillitteri departed from Japan in a hurry, boarding a flight at Narita airport bound for Taiwan on March 15. In his rush to leave, he left most of his belongings at the apartment he had rented in Tomioka, including his wedding ring and other valuables.
As the apartment is inside the 20-km no-go zone, it will remain vacant for the foreseeable future. Still, on Dec. 3, Pillitteri stopped there and cleaned up all the mess, cleared out his refrigerator and locked the door behind him in a potentially symbolic and cathartic act he hopes will allow him to put the March 11 nightmare behind him.
Some of his other belongings, including his passport, wallet, shoes and a backpack, were left in a rental car he had parked at the Fukushima plant, which he had no choice but to abandon in the rush to flee the complex.
But to his amazement, he discovered that Tepco had retrieved all the belongings he left in the rental car, and boxed and stored them. The utility returned them to him on Dec. 5.
"Nine months after, they gave me everything (left inside the car). Even a box (of) tissue. Come on, they are very honest. I thought I would never see (those items) again," he said.
"Amazing. To me, an amazing story."