Nanaimo students return home from Japan

Emotional welcome for students after spering break trip cut short due to earthquake, tsunami

Melaina Link

Melaina Link

Melaina Link could see tears in the eyes of the Japanese passengers on board her flight from Tokyo to Vancouver Monday.

She felt terrible for the people of Japan, but also glad she was heading home to Nanaimo, away from a country reeling from the effects of an 8.9-magnitude earthquake and the resulting tsunami that slammed into the eastern coast of Japan last week, sweeping cars, boats and houses out to sea as fires raged uncontrollably.

Link, a Grade 11 student from Woodlands Secondary School, was in the air en route to Tokyo for a spring break field trip when the massive quake happened. The 16 Nanaimo students were accompanied by three adult chaperones, including Ryoko MacColl, the district’s Japanese language teacher.

The plane was diverted to Sapporo, where the Nanaimo group stayed for one night before flying to Narita International Airport in Tokyo. Nine students and two adult chaperones got a flight home Monday, while the rest arrived home Tuesday.

It wasn’t until the students arrived at Narita airport that they saw evidence of the earthquake, said Link – cracks in the ground and buildings and pictures hung crookedly.

But what surprised her the most was watching Tokyo residents carry on with life despite the numerous aftershocks.

“People just continued walking, kids continued playing,” said Link. “It was crazy.”

Hannah Smith, a Grade 12 Woodlands Secondary School student, was so tired from the hours of flying and waiting in airports, she slept through some of the earthquakes.

“I’m happy I’m home and safe,” she said. “But I’m sad I didn’t get to experience all of Japan.”

For part of the trip, the students were supposed to stay with some families in Sendai – one of the hardest hit cities.

Smith is worried about those families, as the students hadn’t been able to make contact with them before they left.

Worried parents, relatives and friends lined up to meet the students as they arrived at Nanaimo Airport Monday afternoon.

Brenda Link brought Melaina’s brother, best friend and both grandmothers with her.

“I’ve been pretty much catatonic since I learned [about the earthquake],” she said, adding that she was an emotional wreck until the school district phoned to say the students were OK and even then, all she could think about was getting her daughter home.

“I was desperate to have her home again,” said Link.

Kurt Henderson got home from work around midnight Thursday and turned on the TV to see coverage of the earthquake. His heart sank because he knew his son Riley was either en route to Japan or had just arrived about the time it happened.

Henderson stayed up all night watching the news coverage, phoned the hotel the students were supposed to stay at and then phoned Woodlands principal Dave Stupich at 2 a.m. when he couldn’t get through.

Lise Smith felt powerless when her son told her he had seen something on Facebook about a natural disaster in Japan Thursday night.

“I didn’t let myself watch TV because I knew I would be a basket case,” she said.

Smith is just glad to have her daughter home, adding that Japan doesn’t need the extra burden of caring for Nanaimo students while recovery efforts are underway.

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