HIGASHI-MATSUSHIMA, Miyagi Prefecture--Setsuko Shibuya cheated death by a whisker.
The 61-year-old homemaker was on a train bound for Ishinomaki, a city north of Sendai, when she felt the first jolt of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
The magnitude-9.0 temblor caused the train to sway violently. Minutes earlier, it had departed from Nobiru Station on the JR Senseki Line, which hugs the coastline only 700 meters away.
"The swaying was so strong that I thought the train would flip over," said Shibuya, a resident of Higashi-Matsushima. "It also felt like that the train was being tugged up from above."
The train operator and the conductor urged passengers to remain calm, after they began to shout and whimper with fear. When a thundering roar was heard coming from the sea, passengers saw a wall of water approaching.
The enormous wave engulfed the area.
Fearing the tsunami would swallow the train, Shibuya could not stop shaking. From the window, she saw people being carried away by the waves. Some men inside the train managed to grab hold of a man in his 70s clutching onto a piece of roof in the raging torrent.
A male caregiver who was a passenger looked after him.
As night fell, temperatures reached freezing and it began to snow. To keep the chill out, passengers huddled in one car throughout the night, sharing scarfs and disposable hand warmers. Offering words of encouragement to comfort each other, they shared their box lunches.
They fashioned bed for those who they had plucked from the waves with padded cushions from the train seats.
When the water receded the following afternoon, the passengers formed pairs of a younger person with a senior citizen, to walk to a nearby shelter under the guidance of train staff.
Shibuya could not contact either her husband, 63, or her daughter, 24, until Monday, when the family was finally reunited at a shelter.
"I would have not made it if the quake had hit when the train was at the station because it is so near the sea," Shibuya said, her eyes clouding in tears.
Nobiru Station was the closest train station to the beach, a local summer resort, and is only a few meters above sea level.
The tsunami demolished the station.
While Shibuya's train emerged relatively unscathed from the disaster, another one that left the station in the opposite direction around the same time didn't.
The first two cars of that train derailed and flipped sideways. The remaining cars were carried away by the tsunami and pushed along at almost 90 degrees to the tracks, bending the train into a V configuration.
The inside of the cars were covered with mud and other debris. Seats were wrenched out and tossed around carriages.
Marks on the wall showed that the tsunami was reached 1.2 meters high.
The fate of the passengers remains unknown.
(This article was written by Toru Okuda and Hideyuki Miura.)
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