The tsunami that struck Sendai, Japan in last month – that wave coming out of nowhere, heading ashore with such incredible speed, eating up the landscape and its people – has left an indelible mark on the world. Videos have shown many people mesmerized by the height and speed of the water, standing on bridges, not running, obviously believing that they would be safe. They weren’t.
What goes through people’s minds when it looks as if they may have only minutes to live? We all know that life is fragile. And yet most of us feel that these natural disasters will pass us by. This wasn’t the case with me.
Later, I was told that no one saw the giant wave heading toward our ship, gaining height and speed as it traveled. That day in the late eighties, steaming through the Barents Sea high above Arctic Norway, the waters may have been icy cold, but they were calm. The sunshine and the blue sky above our large ship would make anyone feel that all was well in the world. The passengers, who hailed from an assortment of countries, had embarked in Bergen, Norway five days before. You could find them clustered in the large social area of the lounge, with its glass-enclosed windows, or lying on deck chairs on the open top deck, enjoying the sparkling weather. We were living “the good life” on one of the most beautiful journeys of our lives. Or so we thought.
But the rogue wave was on its way, rising up out of the ocean for no reason, picking up speed rapidly, and growing many meters before slamming into our ship. It hit with great force. There was no time to react. All we could remember was chairs and people thrown at high speed toward the windows.
And then the ship was on its side. We were now on the windows, looking at an underwater world as if we had been pressed into an aquarium wall. A jumble of chairs, tables, and people. No one screamed. No one cried. In our lounge there was only dead silence.
The ship rolled back, righted itself. But there was no attempt to untangle ourselves. No one moved. We were waiting for the next wave to hit and all to be over. The only sound that broke the silence was the continual sound of glasses and china breaking, smashing on the floor of another deck. The ethereal tinkling seemed to go on and on.
We had no idea of time passing. But slowly, people began separating themselves from each other. Still no talking. Around us, there were people unconscious, struck by the furniture. Normally, one might try to help, but help was slow in coming. If not hurt, we were stunned. I knew that my husband was on the outside open deck at the top of the ship – well, if he was still there. But like many others, I could not seem to move from the floor.
Members of the crew came. The bloody and unconscious were carried away. Most of us still had no reaction. When I finally climbed up to the open deck, I saw my husband safe. As far as he knew, he said, everyone clung to the upper railing and survived. The deck chairs went overboard. Even at this later time, we said little, engrossed in our own private experiences and feelings.
A crew member talked about the huge “rogue wave” hitting the ship, but we heard no details — and probably were too stunned to care. Hours later, I saw crew members throwing all the broken china, glassware, and ruined objects into the deep ocean below. Not a word was said about the injured passengers. They had plainly “disappeared”. . . forever.
I often think of the passengers’ behavior – as well as mine – after the disaster. We thought we were going to die. We had been crushed by a sea of other people lying on top of us, and struck by furniture thrown like missiles across the lounge. And yet no one had screamed, no one had spoken.
In Japan, after the worst was over, the photos showed survivors silently wandering around, even a week later. Is this what it is like to be in shock? And why have I been always so reluctant to share this story? I feel like I have been carrying a secret that could only be understood by others who have also survived a near death experience.
I wonder if others who have survived natural tragedies against all odds also feel they somehow now belong to a private fraternity. The silence alone seems to tell its own tale.
Writer Joan Larsen has traveled the world for a lifetime in a search of its most remote places. But she is drawn to the polar regions, which have become her field of expertise, again and again.