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"I almost forgot I was pregnant ... I ran like crazy."; Amherst resident and quake survivor recalls terrifying hours after devastation began

Atsuko Konno was sitting at a department store makeup counter in Sendai, a city in northeastern Japan, when the shaking began.

Konno, 33, had gone to the store alone that day, March 11, leaving her toddler son, Chikara, with her mother at her mother's apartment while she shopped for Japanese cosmetics, organic ginger and other goods that can be hard to find in Amherst.

Konno and her son had moved to the Buffalo area last summer, after her husband, Hikaru Konno, who works for Birdair, was transferred here in April 2009.

They had returned to Japan in February for an extended visit. Her younger brother was planning to get married on March 20. Also, the pregnant Konno knew she wouldn't be able to travel to her home country anytime soon after the baby is born.

So there she was at the Mitsukoshi department store when the biggest earthquake to strike Japan in recorded history occurred.

Konno, who returned to Amherst last week, shared the events that followed with The Buffalo News:

"When it first hit, it felt like a boom," Konno said in Japanese. She felt as if she was being lifted into the air. Then the ground began to shake back and forth.

"I thought I was going to be thrown off the chair. The make-up on the shelves, the bottles, all flew off," she said.

She was near the exit and was able to flee the store.

"Right in front of my eyes, I saw a sign come falling down from the third story," Konno said.

Trees were swaying madly. A wall of a building tumbled down. All the while, the aftershocks kept coming.

Konno began making her way back to her mother's apartment.

"When I tried to run forward, I couldn't go straight," she said. The aftershocks were making the road go up and down "like ocean waves."

All around, she saw people covering their heads. Others held on to things to keep from falling. She saw someone on a bicycle, bleeding from his leg.

"It was unbelievable," she said. "I was so worried [about my son and mother]. I was about a 10-, 15-minute walk [from the apartment]. I almost forgot I was pregnant. I began running. I ran like crazy."

Fire erupted along the road. Water spewed from a broken line. Cracks appeared in the sunken road. All the traffic signals were out and cars were stopped all around.

Through all this, Konno, five months pregnant, ran to her mother's apartment building.

The elevator wasn't operating, so Konno ran up the stairs to her mother's sixth-floor apartment. On her way up, she saw that the wall between the first and second floors had collapsed. She kept going.

She got to the apartment and found her mother standing in the hallway, clutching little Chikara in her arms.

"She was just standing there, shaking, holding my son," Konno said.

Konno wanted to get her family to safety as soon as possible.

"I grabbed my son, my mother, and the elderly lady who lives next door," Konno said. They got a flashlight and a radio and ran down the stairs.

They ran to a park across the street, where disaster volunteers and government officials arrived quickly with water and other emergency supplies.

It began to snow, and Konno worried about keeping her son and mother warm. With aftershocks seeming to be coming further apart, she decided to go back to the apartment.

She found the apartment in shocking disarray. Anything made of glass was smashed to pieces. The refrigerator had moved across the room and fallen over. Water was spilling out of the toilet. The TV had fallen over. The TV stand was broken in half and bent.

"I got coats, comforters, diapers, baby wipes, anything I could grab," she said. She also grabbed her son's stroller and her mother's medicine.

As they listened to the radio, Konno and her mother heard about the tsunami. They were a 20- to 30-minute car ride from the seaside, so Konno knew her family was safe from the water.

Cell phones weren't working, but Konno found a pay phone that was. She contacted her in-laws, along with her mother's elder sister and her younger brother in Chiba.

They decided to go to her in-laws' office, about a half-hour walk away.

When she went to a store to buy food for her son, customers were lined up in an orderly fashion. They took turns going into the store. Konno went in without a flashlight and a stranger loaned her his. Other strangers pointed out items she might need. Outside, clerks were using calculators to check out customers.

"It would take a long time. But no one was complaining That is very Japanese," she said.

All the while, Konno's husband, who was scheduled to fly into Japan on March 12, was frantically trying to get in touch with her. Konno saw his number appear on her cell phone, but the lines would not connect.

That evening her in-laws drove them to her brother-in-law's house.

Konno and her family members spent a tense night together in the dark with no power, no water and no gas. They began hearing more about the devastation from the tsunami, which had struck just 20 minutes away. There was a report that 200 to 300 bodies had washed ashore.

The aftershocks came throughout the night, and each time one hit, Konno grabbed her son in a big towel and carried him outside. Her brother-in-law did the same with his young children.

The next day, Konno was able to send e-mails to her husband. He had been able to fly into Narita International Airport in Tokyo, but all flights into Sendai had been canceled. The tsunami had obliterated the airport in Sendai. The bullet trains weren't running there, either.

Then they began hearing about the problems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

Fukushima is the prefecture, or state, next to Miyagi, where Sendai is located.

Konno was concerned about radiation exposure, particularly to her son and unborn baby.

They decided she shouldn't even consider driving to Tokyo because she would have to drive through Fukushima.

"While we had gas, we decided to go to Akita," she said, of a city far to the north of Sendai. Akita Airport was functioning.

Along the way, she saw terrible devastation from the quake. A bridge was badly damaged. A giant tank had fallen down. Older homes were flattened. Power lines were down everywhere. But there were almost no people in sight.

"It looked like a ghost town," she said.

By this time, little Chikara had figured out that something bad was going on. He quickly learned how to say "earthquakes are scary," his mother said.

They found the airport swamped with anxious passengers. They were able to get on a flight after a last-minute cancellation, and she met her husband in Osaka, far from the devastation.

There, at a hotel, she watched the TV news and read newspaper reports about the damage to her hometown for the first time. Up until then, she had only heard about what had happened over the radio.

"I cried out loud," she said.

She was able to make contact with friends who lived near the ocean in Sendai. One said her family's house had been completely washed away. Another told of how waves brought a car through a window.

The Konnos made plans to return to Buffalo as soon as possible. To do so, they had to fly from Osaka to Seoul, Korea. They spent a night there and then took a flight to New York City and finally to Buffalo.

Konno was finally able to check her e-mail and was touched by the dozens of messages she had received from her circle of Japanese friends in Buffalo who had been worried about her.

She continues to have nightmares.

"I hear sirens in my sleep," she said. She also keeps imagining that the ground is shaking.

She generally avoids watching the news. She gets too upset when she sees what has happened to her hometown. "I don't even recognize it," she said, pointing to a newspaper image of a young woman crying amid a sea of destruction. The photo was taken just 20 minutes from her in-law's house.

"I can only cry," she said.

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com