By Awake! correspondent in Japan
Exodus of Ten Thousand People Overnight
“EVACUATE now! Right away!” Elderly men and women in the Oshima Home for Senior Citizens were told to take refuge in an elementary school because of the eruption of Mount Mihara on November 21, 1986. Though the staff of the home had been prepared to evacuate since the volcano became active a few days earlier, the suddenness of the violent eruption that afternoon did not make it easy for them to flee.
“We could not even think about the stretchers we had prepared,” explains Kazuko, a member of the home staff. “We took the elderly in our arms or carried them on our backs to the two buses that the town office had dispatched to the home. These were soon filled, and some people had to be taken by truck to a shelter.”
In time the elderly arrived at the port and were put aboard a Maritime Safety Agency’s boat in order to evacuate the island. They were among the first ones to leave. The evacuation of more than ten thousand islanders and tourists followed.
Earthquakes and Eruptions
Mount Mihara on the island of Izu-Oshima, usually called Oshima, is one of four active volcanoes under strict surveillance in Japan. It has been known for its mild activities. On November 15, 1986, however, the mountain erupted only two weeks after the Volcano Eruption Predicting Liaison Conference declared the mountain safe. The eruptions from crater number one kept increasing. (See map on page 6.) Lava flowed out of the inner rim of this crater into the volcano’s caldera. Then, on the 21st, an unexpected eruption shocked the islanders. A new crater formed. This was followed by eruptions from cracks in the ground shooting up fountains of fire more than 330 feet (100 m). New fire fountains shot up as cracks continued to open up on the side of the mountain.
Earthquakes shook people already terrified by the eruptions. Within an hour, altogether 80 earthquakes rocked the island. Overflowing lava from the outer rim of the crater snaked down the mountain and headed for the most populated area of Oshima, Motomachi. The flow toward Motomachi prompted Hidemasa Uemura, the mayor, to order the evacuation of the islanders from Motomachi. At this time, the southern part of the island, the Habu area, was considered safe.
‘A Mushroom Cloud Like That of an Atom Bomb Explosion’
“We were having tea,” recalls Jiro Nishimura, the only elder in the Izu-Oshima Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Then, a great explosion shook the air. When I went outside, there was a mushroom cloud above Mount Mihara just like that of an atom bomb explosion. I realized that this was no trivial eruption. I could hear something over the town office’s loudspeaker, but since I couldn’t hear the announcement clearly, I called the town office. They said that the inhabitants of the Motomachi area were not yet being advised to evacuate. I knew we had to have something to eat, so I asked my wife to cook rice and make rice balls. But even before I finished eating my first rice ball, the evacuation order was issued.
“Five of us, including my wife’s mother, who is 90 years old, fled to the Motomachi Port parking lot. People were lined up to board the boat to evacuate the island. The line was long, but since my wife’s mother was old and could not walk alone, we were allowed to board an earlier boat bound for Atami.”
For some, it was not easy to leave the island to which they have strong attachment. Kichijiro Okamura, 84 years old, an acupuncturist at the Oshima Home for Senior Citizens, has lived on Oshima for 40 years. Okamura relates his feelings: “The earthquakes were very bad, but I thought it was all right and wanted to see how things would go for a few days. I am used to eruptions and earthquakes. I did not worry too much because I knew it would eventually subside. But firemen took me by force and made me leave. I had to give in.” He left with his wife Yoshie, their two daughters, and four grandchildren.
Evacuation Order for the Whole Island
At first, the lava flow threatened only the northern part of the island. Some who lived in the Motomachi area were transported to the Habu area. The inhabitants of the southern part of the island were merely advised to gather at gymnasiums or schools.
“I had but two blankets and this bag,” says Kaoko Hirakawa, who took refuge in the Nomashi gymnasium at 5:00 p.m. “I thought it would only be overnight.” Her husband Rinzo thought about his sick parents, who lived near the new crater. Worried, they got into a car to pick up his parents. “The earthquakes were tremendous,” relates Rinzo. “It was just like being in a boat. As soon as we got my parents into the car, the ground only a few kilometers away from my parents’ home erupted.” They managed to reach the Nomashi gymnasium, but later they were told to move to Habu.
At 10:50 p.m. the town mayor ordered the whole island to be evacuated. “We took refuge at the Third Junior High School in Habu,” Mrs. Tamaoki relates. “Then we were told to walk to the port. But Port Habu is too shallow for larger boats, so finally we had to take a bus to Motomachi, where we boarded a boat to Tokyo.”
The exodus of more than ten thousand islanders and tourists was completed by 5:55 a.m., November 22, with the mayor and officials boarding the last boat for evacuees. The evacuation of Izu-Oshima was completed within five hours after the major eruption. It took place smoothly and orderly for the most part, to the credit of town officials, the shipping company that sent vessels to Oshima for the evacuation, and the willing cooperation of the islanders. With only rare exceptions, they obeyed the evacuation order promptly. Just a few hundred policemen, firemen, and other personnel stayed on the island, as well as a small number who refused to evacuate.
But where did the evacuees settle? Who would take care of them? How did Jehovah’s Witnesses on the island fare?
[Diagram/Maps on page 6]
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outer rim of the crater
[Picture on page 4]
“Firemen took me by force and made me leave”
[Picture Credit Line on page 5]
Page 2 photo: K. Abe, Earthquake Research Institute, Tokyo. All rights reserved