New Jersey couple loses family member to Japan tsunami

At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, Chie Oikawa felt the 9.0-magnitude earthquake in her small fishing village of Kesennuma in northeastern Japan, prompting her to drive one of the two family cars to higher ground. When she returned to retrieve the second car and the pets, she was swept away by the subsequent tsunami and drowned. She was 33 years old.

It was the middle of the night on the other side of the world as Jim Gallagher, Oikawa’s brother-in-law, neared the end of an arduous travel day marred by weather delays. A producer and associate director at Madison Square Garden Network, Gallagher was returning from working a Knicks game in Memphis, and when he finally landed in Newark, he received a text from a friend saying a huge earthquake had just struck Japan. Arriving at his home in Princeton Junction, Gallagher told his wife, Miho, about the text. “She didn’t seem too concerned,” he says.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” says Miho, alluding to how common earthquakes are in Japan. But when she awoke a few hours later and turned on the TV, she saw her hometown of Kesennuma on fire. Miho would wait one agonizing week before discovering her sister was among the more than twelve thousand casualties of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake.




“I didn’t know what to do. I was speechless,” Miho says of her initial realization that the disaster was indeed a big deal. “I started calling my family, but the phone lines were dead.”

After many failed attempts to contact her father, Miho reached out to friends who live in other regions of Japan to help her find him, her sister and her brothers, Takashi and Hitoshi. In the meantime, the Gallaghers kept vigil on the Internet, searching message boards and Google’s Person Finder for any clues of their loved ones’ whereabouts.

The breakthrough came when Miho’s friend in Chiba left a voicemail on her brother’s cell phone. He returned her friend’s call with the news that Chie perished and the family restaurant and home – including pictures and keepsakes of Miho’s mother, who died of cancer many years ago – were destroyed, but the rest of the family was unharmed.

When Miho finally spoke to her brother, he relayed the grisly details of their sister’s death. While Miho’s father and uncle searched for Chie outside, her brother identified her body at a school serving as a makeshift morgue. Because the funeral home was too busy, cremation, which is standard practice in Japan, would have to wait. “There were so many bodies [to cremate],” says Miho. “Some people were buried, but we didn’t want that.” Generally bodies are cremated two or three days after death; Chie’s cremation was scheduled for April 6, almost one month after the disaster.

Miho’s grandmother and aunt weathered the catastrophe on Oshima, an island less than a mile in circumference and a twenty-minute ferry ride from Kesennuma. The earthquake toppled buildings, and the tsunami caused a fire that destroyed the island’s fishing fleet and burned for four days.

“They were staying in a temple that was turned into a shelter,” says Miho of her grandmother and her aunt, “but they went back to their house because the damage wasn’t that bad.” The women have shelter but are hardly living in luxury; they have no electricity and use well water for cleaning. Still, they consider themselves lucky because the US Army dropped bottled water and supplies from helicopters. As part ofOperation Tomodachi (which means “friends”), US Marines and sailors from the US Navy spent six days clearing debris from the port and other public areas while distributing food, fuel, blankets, toiletries, and even toys.

Back in Kesennuma, Miho’s father has set up residence in a storage space he once used for his restaurant supplies, and Takashi and Hitoshi are in their damaged homes. Since relief assistance in Kesennuma is directed toward people occupying shelters and not those who are staying in their own homes, Miho’s family is not yet receiving aid from the Japanese government. The Oikawa family must make do with available resources.

Jim Gallagher has felt the effects of Japan’s crisis at work as well. MSG replaced Sony HDCAM tapes with another brand because Sony’s plant in Sendai was flooded and the facility was forced to cease operations.

A co-worker of Gallagher’s is also married to a Japanese woman whose family lives in northeastern Japan. Matt and Namiko Carson were married in Matsushima, a town that was demolished by the tsunami and was recently featured on 60 Minutes. While Namiko’s family members survived the disaster and remain in their home outside Sendai, they live in uncertainty in the shadow of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

One of the biggest issues is simply what to do next. Miho suppressed her initial desire to go to Japan to help her family, realizing the closed Sendai airport and demolished train stations rendered traveling to her remote hometown logistically impossible. Plus, she would most likely do more harm than good by being in the way of relief efforts and adding stress to the limited food and water supply.

Miho says it’s too soon to make decisions about the future, such as whether her father should rebuild his restaurant. “They’re just thinking about living day to day right now,” she says. “I talk to my grandmother every day, and she just cries and cries.”

The situation in Japan remains dire, but for now all Jim and Miho Gallagher can do is wait. And hope.