Loyal British teacher stayed in tsunami-destroyed Japan for sake of students despite family's pleas to return home
Teacher Paul Dixon watched in horror as a tsunami raged through his adopted homeland, destroying everything in its path
But instead the Brit heeded the advice of locals who were desperately pleading with him to follow them to the top of a hill.
It was a lesson that saved his life. From the safety of higher ground above the city of Miyako, Paul watched in horror as a tsunami raged through his adopted homeland, destroying everything in its path.
After surviving the catastrophe which claimed the lives of tens of thousands, the 26-year-old’s relieved family begged him to return home to Scunthorpe, Lincs.
But the notion of leaving the Japanese port and its people at the time of their greatest need was unthinkable to Paul. Instead he endured seeing unimaginable horrors in the days that followed, carried the elderly on his back as they hunted for lost loved-ones and helped rebuild a community washed away by black, churned up waters from the Pacific.
APNow, surrounded by his pupils in a new classroom that was once a devastated shell, Paul reflects on the day that changed all their lives.
Like the teenagers who lost everything in the disaster, Paul has spent the last two years piecing together the splintered areas of the city.
Miyako Kogyo High School was ripped to shreds by the rushing waters that spewed across Japan’s eastern coastline two years ago on Monday, following the massive earthquake which reached a magnitude of 8.9.
Shocking footage of the giant wave cascading over the sea wall in the city centre came to define the natural disaster that killed 20,000 people across the country and left more than 300,000 homeless.
Resisting calls from his family to return home, Paul has become a role model for his students. The English language teacher says: “These people have great strength and resilience and they support each other. They have pulled together to rebuild their town and their school. They have real pride in their community, and I feel a part of that.
“I was given the opportunity to transfer to another place, but I knew my mind would still be here. I wanted to see the recovery.
“On the day of the tsunami, I should have been at school but I was allowed to go home to pack as I was moving flat the following weekend. The earthquake happened as I was eating lunch at a local cafe. I was told by locals to follow them to a building on higher ground.
“The tsunami hit my area very, very badly. If I had gone back I would not be here today.
“The black wall of water destroyed everything, including the first floor of my house and my car, which was loaded up with all my belongings.”
North Downs Picture Agency
North Downs Picture AgencyFor several days Paul had no news about friends and pupils. Phone lines were down, power had been cut off so there was no TV or radio.
Despite the shock, Paul helped out in the days afterwards by cooking at an evacuation shelter for refugees.
“I had to carry old people around on my back,” he recalls. “These very infirm people were trying to find loved ones, their homes and belongings. Everybody was very distraught, but showing a lot of courage.
“We had to walk over upended cars and telegraph poles to find a route through to where they thought their homes used to be. Everything was such a mess – you couldn’t see streets any more. There was a huge boat wedged against a bridge and debris everywhere. Houses were turned upside-down with cars on top of them.
“The end of my old street was blocked by a house that had been shunted several hundred metres from where it was before. It was smashed beyond all recognition.”
At the school, staff and students had taken refuge on the upper floor and watched the tsunami’s destructive path in horror.
Pupils at another school Paul taught at part-time in nearby Yamada were less fortunate, however, and lost their lives.
“I lost several of my students and two of my best Japanese friends,” Paul adds solemnly. “One died with her husband and son as they helped people escape from their garage. Nearly all of my students in Yamada lost their homes as well.
“Many of my elderly neighbours died, some from drowning, some from the fires that broke out. When I first went back I almost broke down, but I stayed strong because my students were still wandering around in the wreckage.”
Principal Fujiwara Hitoshi was at the school as the wall of muddy water raced towards them, swamping the ground floor. Filing cabinets were picked up and slammed against walls, cars parked outside were rammed into school outbuildings and sheds were smashed up.
North Downs Picture Agency
North Downs Picture AgencyEven heavy steel machines used by tech students were wrenched from their foundations and dumped elsewhere on the campus.
Staff and students sought sanctuary on the second floor and watched for more than a day as the waters slowly receded, leaving behind complete carnage.
“There were about 70 students here with us,” Mr Hitoshi remembers. “We all watched in horror as the wave came in. None of us had ever seen anything like it in our lives.
“There are floodgates on the estuary and the water just glided over them. That’s when we knew how devastating it was going to be. I could see houses, pylons, roofs and trees being carried towards us. It just kept coming and coming. The students stood watching in silence. We had to wait a couple of days for rescuers. There were no blankets so we ripped the curtains to keep warm.”
The 300 pupil, all-boys school was re-opened six months after the tsunami, but the clean-up job was immense, costing more than £3million in government funding.
Its library, gym, staff room, offices and classrooms were ruined beyond recognition. Outside the sports pitches were completely washed away.
Showing grit and loyalty, Paul made the brave decision to do his bit to help children in a badly traumatised community.
It was a baptism of fire in his first job after university. Fellow teachers were touched that he had stayed on rather than deserting them for England.
Paul adds: “I’m incredibly proud of my students. They returned after the tsunami, made the best of what they had and still managed to graduate.
“People ask me why I stayed here. I can’t answer them because I honestly don’t know. But I’m glad I did stay.”