The following is an updated post of a blog I wrote four years ago following the earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan’s northeastern coast. I have updated some details; other than that and the postscript at the end this blog appears as originally posted.
We interrupt our national obsession with all things Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and Taylor Swift to talk about some people whose names you’ve never heard before … and may never actually hear, period.
Why would we do a silly thing like that? Glad you asked.
One morning a few years ago I had the privilege of leading our KCS chapel. I began by asking the kids if they had any heroes. Hands shot up all over the room. I was expecting to hear names like D.Wade and Lebron James – this is Miami, after all – but instead, when I called on the first young lady I heard:
“Jesus!” (That’s always a good answer when the pastor asks a question.)
“Great,” I said. “Who else?”
“Spiderman!” “Batman!” “Superman!”
Sensing they weren’t exactly on the desired wavelength, I said: “OK, who else, maybe others who are normal people like us, but do extraordinary things?”
“My parents,” said one young lady, who, in a totally unrelated detail, happened to be sitting with her mom.
“Very good,” I said. “I see a raise in your allowance in the very near future.”
“Teachers,” a young man volunteered, met by a wave of laughter and applause.
“Excellent! I predict a very bright academic career for you. One with many, many, Honor Roll appearances.”
Then I said, “Let me tell you about some of my heroes. I have quite a few ….” I mentioned a few athletes I admire a lot; preachers I look up to that none of the kids, or you, would have heard of; some of America’s Founding Fathers; military heroes.
I continued, “I have some new heroes – 50 new ones, to be precise – but I can’t tell you their names. In fact, I don’t know their names. Hardly anyone in the world does, but I can tell you something about what they do.” I then told the students something along these lines:
On Friday, March 11, 2011 Japan experienced one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history, magnitude 9.0, followed by an incredible tsunami resulting in an enormous loss of life (90,000 dead according to the most current estimates). Homes and entire towns washed away, devastation on an unimaginable scale … and then, disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station. The tsunami breached the protective walls around the plant, causing massive internal damage. Fire, explosions, potential meltdowns, release of nuclear radiation … everyone in the area for miles around evacuated to get far away from the toxic vapors. Well, almost everyone.
A small crew of technicians, braving fire, explosions as hydrogen gas escaping from crippled reactors ignited on contact with air, and toxic radiation stayed behind, trying to put the fires out, trying to prevent the unthinkable, catastrophic meltdowns. Since there was no electricity at the crippled plant, they crawled through the mazes of equipment in utter darkness, waiting for the next blast, aided only by their flashlights and their courage.
At this point I had the lights in the chapel turned off and I switched on a small halogen bulb flashlight. I asked the students how they would like to crawl through a pitch black nuclear power plant with explosions going on around them, with just a flashlight to help them.
“Would you be afraid?” I wondered. “I sure would.”
News sources told us: “Tokyo Electric has refused to release the names or any other information about the 50 workers who stayed behind, nor have utility executives said anything about how they are being relieved as they become tired or ill.”
They did this, these 50 brave, nameless technicians, heroes all – knowing that what they were doing might very well kill them – for honor, for duty, for the sake of their country, their families, their loved ones. They deserve our undying respect, admiration and gratitude for what they did in response to what happened that momentous Friday, the day their whole world changed.
It reminds me of those courageous NYPD officers and NYFD firefighters who rushed into the World Trade Center towers one beautiful, horrible Tuesday morning over 13 years ago, the day our whole world changed. They, too, did what they did for honor, for duty, for the sake of their country, their fellow New Yorkers, and their loved ones. They also deserve our respect, admiration and gratitude. They are the very definition of the word “hero.”
More than that, it reminds me of what one lone, beaten, bloodied Galilean rabbi, a teacher, healer, miracle worker and preacher did on an old rugged cross outside Jerusalem one dark, scandalous Friday 2000 years ago. He had entered a world contaminated by the toxic radiation of our sin, and He knew full well that what He was doing, rescuing people from that deadly toxic cloud, would cost Him his life.
The difference is, He did what He did for a world full of sinners, many of whom are apathetic and uninterested or even outright hostile toward Him:
Romans 5:6-8: You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
That’s what happened that momentous Friday, the day we call Good Friday, the day the whole world changed. For that He deserves not only our undying respect, admiration and gratitude. He deserves our hearts, our minds, our wills and our undivided worship forever. He’s not just a Hero. He’s the One, the Messiah, The Son of God, the Lamb of God who lays down His life to take away the sins of the world.
Postscript: In case you’re interested, here are a few snapshots of what life has been like for the workers at the crippled plant since then (all emphases added):
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the workers ate and slept in shifts in a two-story earthquake-resistant building at the center of the complex constructed in July 2010, about “the size of an average living room.” There were no showers or flushing toilets.
Over the weeks that followed, the Fukushima 50 resigned themselves to a daily routine of long shifts, wrapped head to toe in protective clothing which would get drenched with sweat. Simple tasks like scratching an itchy nose were unbelievably difficult. Nights were spent sleeping on the uncomfortable floor of a radiation-proof building.
Initially, the men survived on a diet of biscuits and other dried food. Deliveries of emergency supplies were out of the question while soldiers were still pulling bodies from the tsunami debris and getting aid to hundreds of thousands of survivors. The water shortage meant the Fukushima 50 were denied even bowls of warming instant noodles.
For the first two weeks of the crisis, each worker was given just one 500-millilitre bottle of water that had to last two days. “It was two weeks before I had my first cup of coffee,” one engineer said. “It tasted fantastic.”
A daily schedule at Fukushima I nuclear plant (according to an article published on March 28, 2011):
meeting at the antiseismic building
breakfast (biscuits; about 30 pieces and one bottle of vegetable juice)
commence tasks at the reactor building and boiler building
supper (packed rice and one canned food)
meeting at the antiseismic building
sleep, with blanket on the floor, except people who work at night.
During some of the work, in high radiation areas, the workers were limited to 15-minute sessions inside the damaged buildings.
Over 20 workers had been injured by March 18, 2011, including one who was exposed to a large amount of ionizing radiation when the worker tried to vent vapor from a valve of the containment building.Three more workers were exposed to radiation over 100 mSv [millisieverts, an international unit measuring radioactive exposure], and two of them were sent to a hospital due to beta burns on March 24. Two other workers, Kazuhiko Kokubo, 24, and Yoshiki Terashima, 21, were killed by the tsunami while conducting emergency repairs immediately after the quake. Their bodies were found on March 30.
In context, immediate symptoms became apparent if exposed to above 250 mSv per day. Symptoms include nausea and loss of appetite as well as damage to bone narrow, lymph nodes and the spleen. Generally, these symptoms become more severe and noticeable in the 1000 to3000 mSv range with recovery probable, but not assured. New and more serious symptoms appear above 3000 mSv such as peeling of the skin, hemorrhaging and and sterility with death if left untreated.
Referring to the original 50 workers, nuclear researcher Dr. Eric Hall opined that they were likely to be older, and unlikely to have further children, so the long-term effects of exposure to high-levels of ionizing radiation would be less likely to appear before a natural death. Some younger workers were injured and young Osaka firefighters were operating at the site. A group of 250 skilled senior citizens volunteered to work in the radioactive environment, citing reduced harm to them.
On July 10, 2013, Masao Yoshida, leader of the Fukushima 50, died of esophageal cancer. TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Company, Incorporated] stated this form of cancer was unlikely related to the event at Fukushima since it usually takes 5–10 years to develop.
Ever since the devastating events of March 11 caused three of Fukushima Daiichi’s six nuclear reactors to melt down – and set off fires in a fourth – the workers who have continued to labor in the plant have become a focus of global fascination, all the more so because so little is known about them. When fires broke out in Reactor 4, “the Fukushima 50,” as they were soon dubbed, stayed on to fight them even as 750 of their colleagues were evacuated. Their number soon rose to more than 1,000 and, since then, 18,000 or more have worked in the plant since the accident. The Japanese government handed out bromides and evasions, and the officials of TEPCO kept changing their story. All the while, laborers worked to clean up the mess in conditions that looked suicidal to some. “They are ready to die,” said Prime Minister Naoto Kan one week after the catastrophe.
The worries about the spread of radiation have hardly abated, but the workers remain all but nameless and faceless; they rarely speak to the press – for fear of being fired – and all that most of us see of them are pictures of virtually extraterrestrial figures in HAZMAT suits and masks clomping around a wasteland eerily emptied of 100,000 people.
It is estimated that more than 19,000 people have died from the disaster.
One month after the meltdown, the Fukushima disaster was upgraded from a 5 to a 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, the only accident to have been given that highest rating other than Chernobyl (the accident at Three Mile Island, in 1979, by contrast, merited a 5). One day before [Dr. Robert Gale, the world’s leading medical authority on nuclear radiation exposure and contamination] spoke with the workers, a study of the Japanese disaster contended that, in the first few days of the meltdown, Fukushima released more radioactive gas than Chernobyl by a factor of 2.5. Earlier, Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear-industry executive who served as an expert at Three Mile Island, had asserted that Fukushima has the potential to release 20 times as much radiation as Chernobyl.
In the weeks immediately before Dr. Gale’s trip to Iwaki, one worker checked into a hospital after only 46 days on the job. He was dead the following morning.
Some are reportedly offered salaries of around $80 a day; others, in very dangerous spots, $500 an hour. Though most are allowed to put in no more than two hours a day at the plant itself, the whole process – of being bused to the area, clothed, checked, briefed, and checked again – takes up eight hours every day. Many leave their inns at four A.M.
The stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant is the world’s most complex and costly industrial clean-up. TEPCO’s early guess was that decommissioning would take 30-40 years. That is certainly optimistic.
Meanwhile, a lower-tech clean-up is taking place beyond the Dai-ichi site over a big swathe of Fukushima’s rolling countryside. Armed with Geiger counters, men in mechanical diggers or with shovels are skimming off contaminated soil. Once the land is clean, at least some residents have a hope of returning home – 71,000 nuclear refugees remain in temporary housing. But it could take years.
Compiled from numerous sources, including: