Radiation refugees come to Parksville

Former Vancouver Island resident flees Tokyo with family; comes home to the Parksville area.

Lance and Tomoko quit their jobs to flee radiation dangers in Japan.

Lance and Tomoko quit their jobs to flee radiation dangers in Japan.

His hands move up and down, mimicking the rolling of the sea.

But this isn’t water Lance Pope is talking about. It’s the land under his feet.

His movements quicken, the rolling no longer gentle. Then his hands shake violently.

“That’s how it was,” he said. “It was like a two-stroke motorcycle going into the power band. It just revved right up.”

Before his world shook apart last month, the 38-year-old former Parksville resident and Ballenas high school grad had seen a bright future ahead. He had a good job as an English instructor at the University of Tokyo, and Tomoko, his new wife, was a veterinarian. Together they kept a small but tidy house in the suburbs and they had been kept busy preparing for a very special day.

“We got married at the ward office about two years ago, but we hadn’t had the ceremony because a family member had a health problem,” Lance said. “We were going to have the actual ceremony on April 2.”

Those plans were brutally cut off at 2:46 p.m. on March 11.

“I was at home,” he said. “I was preparing a music list for the ceremony and the house started to shake.”

That wasn’t unusual. The house itself was specially designed to flex and move with the frequent tremblors experienced in the area, which just two days earlier had experienced a 7.0 quake.

“The quakes we get usually last a few seconds,” he said. “Usually you don’t even leave the house. Only a couple of times did I leave the house and even then, by the time you get out it’s over.”

Expecting more of the same, Lance held on and waited for it to stop.

It didn’t.

“It gradually picked up and I thought, this is going on longer than it should,” he said. “I stood up and it got quite violent. I got outside onto the balcony and then it really, really started to shake up. I crouched down and held onto the balcony.”

The shaking intensified even more.

“I jumped over the balcony and into our neighbour’s yard,” he said. “I couldn’t walk properly. I found a tree and hung onto it, but even then I couldn’t keep my balance. I had to crouch and hang on. It was like the whole earth had turned into the swells of the ocean, going up and down, side to side. The trees were shaking, the houses were shaking. It was like being a paint bucket in a paint shaker. It was just like that. The trees were going crazy and everything around me was crashing and banging.”

Meanwhile, across Tokyo, Tomoko was at work, sitting at her desk on the fourth floor, when the 9.0 quake struck.

“Beside my desk there is a big shelf, with many books,” she said, her English halting. “The chair crashed and the shelf crashed onto the computer and I held the shelves and tried to stand up and then I crouched. It lasted almost five minutes and then it stopped, and then the shaking came again. It was very scary.”

With the elevators stopped, she staggered down the stairs into a change room. As she entered, a large wall mirror crashed to the floor and shattered in front of her. She fled outside.

When the shaking finally stopped, both Lance and Tomoko tried to call each other, but cell service was dead and so were the landlines. The e-mail was down, too.

As aftershocks, continued, Tokyo exploded into action.

“There were fire engines, police cars, the whole area came alive,” Lance said. “The loudspeakers came on, telling people to stay indoors, to stay calm.”

Across town, Tomoko jumped on her little 250 cc motorbike and weaved her way through traffic and back roads the three kilometres to their home. As she drove up, Lance raced outside and they held each other tight.

“It was very emotional,” he said.

Inside the house, shelves had fallen, crockery was broken, but thanks to its special shock-absorbing features there was no major damage. The couple cleaned up what they could as they waited to see what would happen next. Meanwhile, the aftershocks kept coming.

“They were every 20 minutes to half an hour,” he said. “It almost became normal to be in an earthquake.”

Eventually, the couple went to bed, but they found no sleep there, as aftershocks continued to shake the house.

In the morning, Lance’s phone rang. It was his boss, calling him in to work. Others couldn’t get in because the train lines were down, but Lance, he knew, could make it.

He got on his 600 cc motorcycle and rode in, but even as he tried to work, he kept checking the news on his phone. It was at noon that he learned about Fukushima.

“I read on my phone that there was some trouble with a nuclear power plant,” he said. “They said if they didn’t get the system under control within 24 hours it could have a meltdown.”

To his horror, he realized this was noon of the day following the quake. He had maybe a little over two hours before that deadline passed at the crippled plant.

He put on his coat and walked to the parking lot, mounted his bike and rode home to Tomoko.

“As soon as I got home I sat on the couch and looked at the TV,” he said.

“It showed one reactor blowing up with a hydrogen explosion. They said there was no radiation leak, but I knew right then I wanted to get out of Tokyo. I told Tomoko we should get out of Tokyo tonight.”

Tomoko resisted. Her family was all in Tokyo. She should stay, she said.

As the couple agonized, the news came on again. An exclusion zone had expanded from five to 10 kilometres around the reactor.

“It was spreading,” he said, “It was spreading even though they said there was no radiation.”

That was it. They packed two small packsacks and some saddlebags for Lance’s bigger bike. They made a cozy home for their cat, Boss, and strapped it down to the back of the bigger bike, mounted up and headed south.

“We rode for about four hours and then, early in the morning, we rented a motel,” Lance said.

“It was 2:45 a.m. and I wanted to keep going, but we decided against it because we were tired and didn’t want to get into an accident.”

The exhausted couple slept fitfully after sneaking Boss inside. In the morning, they mounted up again and, as Tomoko’s little 250 whined beside the deeper throb of Lance’s 650, they put another 500 miles between them and Tokyo.

That night, they stayed in a school in Ega and, in the morning, they didn’t linger.

“When we woke up next morning we heard the number three reactor had blown,” Lance said.

They rode on to Osaka, where they hoped to stay with a friend until the situation stabilized. That plan, too, was quickly shattered.

“The next morning reactor number two blew up and I said, that’s it, we’re leaving Japan,” Lance said. “We have to get out.’

Over the next few hours they did some banking, made some calls and began the process of getting Boss ready for export. Even as they did so, they continued to monitor the situation.

“We were checking our phones whenever we could and then we found out that Tokyo radiation levels had spiked,” Lance said. “It was a very emotional moment.”

Preparing to leave was a heartbreaking process, particularly for Tomoko.

“I didn’t want to leave Japan,” Tomoko said. “If I were not with Lance maybe I would be there even now, I think. My family is there.”

Thanks to a friendly vet, who stayed up until 3 a.m. filling out paperwork for Boss, the couple was able to board a flight to Canada.

Now, as they look at the ruins of their planned life together, Lance and Tomoko can take some small comfort in the fact that at least one of their plans for the future has come to fruition.

They had hoped to move to Parksville one day, as Lance’s family is here, and now they’ve taken up residence in a rustic cabin in Columbia Beach.

“We resigned from our jobs. That was hard,” Lance said. “We are going to go back on May 7 to sell the house, pack everything up, have a small ceremony at Tomoko’s grandmother’s house and then move here. We want to set up a kennel business, while Tomoko studies to become a vet in Canada.”

While they wait for their flight back to Japan, Lance and Tomoko follow the news —  on their phones, the TV, radio and Internet, watching and learning … and hoping that this plan, too, won’t fall prey to the beast unleashed at Fukushima.



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