Wanner family photo
Peter Wanner, wife Fumiko, children Theresa, 14, John, 12, and Jessie, 20 (not pictured) fled to the Philippines after the March 11 quake and tsunami.
Wanner family photo
Peter Wanner, wife Fumiko, children Theresa, 14, John, 12, and Jessie, 20 (not pictured) fled to the Philippines after the March 11 quake and tsunami.
Ironically, it was funeral planning that helped keep Myra Holmes’ mind off the unknown whereabouts of her son and his family in Sendai, Japan, following the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that killed thousands and destroyed entire communities across 18 prefectures.

As the funeral chairwoman for the Altar Society at her parish, St. Matthew Church in Hillsboro, Myra and tried not to think about the fact that neither she, nor any of her adult children had heard anything.

At 6:15 a.m. Friday morning, Myra and her husband Bill watched the news and read these words scroll across the screen: “The epicenter of the quake is Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture.”

“Our hearts dropped, knowing that’s where our son and family lived,” she said. “Then came the tears and the fear that there was no way they could have survived after seeing the destruction.”

All day Friday and into Saturday the family waited. Peter’s sister Cecelia, an employee with the Red Cross, registered them as missing. His other siblings tried to contact them by email and Facebook.

“Working [at the church] helped take my mind off it, but people kept asking about it,” Myra said. “I didn’t want to talk about it because I would break into tears. I really felt that they were gone and we’d never hear from them again.”

The call finally came at 3:15 p.m., Saturday, March 12, just before Myra returned from the funeral. Bill answered and dashed down notes quickly. The power had just come on, Peter said, and he only had a few minutes to talk. When the earthquake hit, Peter had been in his office at Tohoku University, where he works in the Graduate School of International Cultural Studies’ Department of Language Education. Fumiko and their oldest son, Jessie, 20, had gone grocery shopping and had just stepped out of the store when it hit. Theresa, 14, and John, 12, were at their respective schools.

“Japan has lots of earthquakes, and we would worry every time we heard of one,” Myra said. “But Peter always let us know right away that they were OK. Then came the big one.”

As a student at University of Portland after growing up in the Hillsboro area, Peter worked at other colleges to help pay his tuition. While he was working at Lewis and Clark College in Southwest Portland, he met Fumiko. They married at UP's Chapel of Christ the Teacher, and after graduation, moved back to Japan to help take care of Fumiko’s parents. In 1996, Myra visited her son and was impressed that he walked a mile from his home in Sendai every day to attend Mass there.

As the earthquake rocked the country, Peter’s office began falling down around him. He ran out of the building, and ran all the way to his home without even bothering to put his shoes on. The door was jammed shut and his wife and children were nowhere to be found. Miraculously, Peter, Fumiko and their three children found each other, forced their way into their apartment and packed their bags. They headed for a shelter at a local gymnasium.

The earthquake triggered tsunami waves that struck Japan immediately, some traveling as many as six miles inland. Nearly 9,000 deaths, 3,000 injured and 13,000 missing were confirmed by the Japanese National Police Agency, as of press deadlines.

Peter sent an email out to his entire family Monday, March 14. He described their attempts to get out of the country, where there was no electricity, no heat, limited food and a scarce supply of water. They had heard about the reactor explosions at Fukushima that led to radiation leakage.  

“We decided to get out in whatever way we could,” said Peter in an email to his family. “We were even thinking of walking to Yamagata if we didn’t make it on the last bus.”  

They did catch the last bus and, because the trains weren’t running, they took two taxis all the way to the nearest Shinkansen, or bullet train, station, a five-hour drive through snowdrifts. They took the Shinkansen to an airport in Tokyo, where 1,000 people were camped. The airport provided blankets and sleeping bags, a ration of water and crackers for each person. Finally they managed to get a flight to the Philippines, where they arrived safe on March 15.

By the time Peter got access to his email, he said, he had more than 90 messages from people concerned about their wellbeing.

Relatives in the United States have offered to pay for the family to come back to Oregon, but for now Peter and his family plan to return to Japan at the end of April. Members of St. Matthew’s St. Elizabeth Circle Altar Society group have also offered financial assistance for the family.

“We are just praying that God will guide them in their decision, and they will know the Lord's will,” Myra said.