Eyewitness Account of a Tsunami

A Story of Survival

(From an actual eyewitness acccount from archival and newspaper records; Edited by George Pararas-Carayannis; Photos from ITIC archives)

Mrs. Ito was home alone that day. The day had started out as usual for her until the late afternoon when the news of an eartquake in Chile and of the destructive tsunami waves came over the radio. A warning for Hawaii went into effect.

This was not the first tsunami warning for her. Her small home was built on the property that made it safely through the terrible 1946 wave that destroyed Hilo. Watching the 1946 waves roar in and suck out everything until the bottom of the river could be seen, and then the water coming back swiftly like a solid black wall hitting big business buildings and smashing everything in sight by its tremendous power, was a breathtaking sight that had been etched in her memory. No words can truly describe the actions and sound of the 1946 tsunami waves she had experienced. Many lost their lives, then. But the waves did not reach her home. Mrs Ito felt safe in her house. ( photo of 1946 tsunami at Hilo waterfront)

At last, 12:30 a.m. came as the radio warning had said and nothing happened. She could hear passing people say that the tsunami waves must have missed the islands and they laughed as they were returning to their homes. Mrs Ito went into her living room and looked down the street. It was calm. Then, a sudden flash-like lighting lit the sky over Hilo Bay and a deafening explosion broke the night's silence. The first large wave of the tsunami had burst Hilo's electric power plant. Suddenly, all the lights in Hilo went out.

Next thing Mrs Ito heard was a rumbling sound. Before she knew it, the wave roared into her house, snapping off the porch. She was knocked to the floor as her house begun to spin, squeek and finally tear apart. Terrible yelling and groaning sounds came from her neighbors' homes as they, too, were tumbled about in debris. Desperately, Mrs Ito grasped for anything to stay above water. It was pitch black and the cold ocean water was filled with silt and dirt.

Mrs. Ito prayed and fought to stay above water when something heavy fell on her. The floorboards opened up and she became trapped in the splintered wreck that used to be her home. She used every bit of strength in her 4' 8'', 102 pound body to struggle out of the boards and managed to squeeze free. Then she blacked out.
(photo of Hilo destruction from 1960 tsunami)

Next thing she knew she was floating on something in the water. She found herself being washed back and fourth as the water rose and subsided. Wreckage and debris covered the water's surface and she could feel tall bushes and river grasses around her legs. She couldn't see anyone else and listened for the sound of ocean waves. There were no waves, so she figured she had to be floating over flooded land. Mrs. Ito carefully tried to stretch her foot to touch bottom but it was too deep. Not knowing how to swim, she hung on tight to her tiny makeshift raft and prayed.

Another wave came and trashed her over and over. Now the surface was heavy with oil and gas from a demolished gas plant. Wreckage covered the water to a point where she thought she could just get up and walk away from all the floating debris.. Big sections of houses and logs drifted by.

Before she could get her breath another tsunami wave began a mad dash, high over tall pine trees near the Hilo Iron Works. There she was, a 51 year old widow who couldn't swim, riding on a 35 foot wave over the old Cow Palace and nearly crushing into building tops.

It all hit so fast she didn't have time to scream or cry and then she was left in the middle of Hilo Bay. Now the deep water of the Bay was under her. As horrible as that last rush of the wave had been, the waters were now calm. Not for long. She could now feel she was drifting out to sea. A small red light appeared and grew larger. Mrs Ito realized that she was headed at high speed straight for a marker buoy. She missed the collision and headed out on her little raft into the open waters of the Pacific.

At sunrise, she spotted two boats on the horizon. She saw in the distance a radio station tower light. She remained at peace and kept her head down. She thought that death was just a matter of time away. She thought the people on the boats had not seen her. Then the boats came closer and closer. Mrs. Ito was seen and saved.

(Downtown Hilo after 1960 Tsumami - photo: ITIC archives)

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