Canadians return from Japan relieved, exhausted

Exhausted and in many cases overcome with emotion, Canadians who experienced the destruction of Friday's earthquake and tsunami in Japan have returned home to their families in Toronto.
Canadian Dan Ayotte gives his eyewitness account of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Sendai, Japan 3:54

Exhausted and in many cases overcome with emotion, Canadians who experienced the destruction of Friday's earthquake and tsunami in Japan returned home to their families in Toronto on Sunday.

In interviews with CBC News the Canadians, including two who were working at a stricken nuclear power plant in Fukushima when the quake hit, expressed relief at being home and grief for the Japanese people left behind to deal with the devastation.

Government officials estimate the magnitude 9.0 quake and the tsunami that it triggered have killed at least 10,000 people in one area alone in what has been called Japan's greatest disaster since the Second World War.

"I thought the whole building was going to come down," said GE employee Dan Ayotte, who was working at the plant when the earthquake struck. "I'll never go back. I'm going to retire."

The plant where Ayotte was working is one of several crippled by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Nuclear plant operators worked frantically to try to keep temperatures down in several reactors, wrecking at least two by dumping sea water into them in last-ditch efforts to avoid meltdowns.

"The nuclear plant is devastated," Ayotte told CBC News. "I've worked there for 15 years, I don't think it'll ever open up again."

"We were evacuated on Friday morning because they lost cooling in the core," said Ayotte. "There's about four feet of fuel exposed. Sendai, that town is just gone."

"I'm still shaking, I've never seen damage like that in my life," he added. "Cars upside down, houses flattened. The people don't have any food. There's no food, no power, no water. I don't know what's going to happen to them."

For now, Ayotte said he's simply glad to be back in Canada.

"The Canadian Shield, I want it under me. I'm not going anywhere it shakes again," he said.

Diana Warren's husband Troy was working in Japan when the quake hit. She received a message at home shortly after it struck, letting her know that her husband was safe. Still, she remained anxious until he stepped off the plane and on to Canadian soil on Sunday.

"Friday was the worst day," said Warren, whose husband was trapped about 100 kilometres north of Tokyo when the quake struck. It took him 11 hours to travel back to Tokyo by train, a trip that would take an hour under normal circumstances.

"Once I heard he was back to Tokyo I felt a lot of relief," she said.

Joe Collins of Peterborough, Ont., also works for GE Canada and was working at the Fukushima plant when the quake hit.

'The whole town is wiped out'

Collins told CBC News he can't stop thinking about the Japanese friends he has had to leave behind.

"They're going through absolute hell," said Collins. "The place that we go down and have noodles every night for supper … We became friends with all these people and they're all gone. Their whole town is wiped out. You can't describe that. The place where you had supper two nights before is no longer standing there."

Collins's wife, Jennifer, said she's happy the anxious moments waiting for her husband's return are over. She greeted her husband in the arrivals area at Toronto's Pearson Airport along with the couple's 16-month-old daughter Abigail.

"I'm absolutely overwhelmed," she told CBC. "I'm so happy so thankful he's alive and here."

Not all Canadians who experienced the disaster were so lucky.

A Canadian missionary has been identified as a victim of the tsunami that ravaged much of Japan's northeastern coast after Friday's quake.

The Quebec-based Society of Foreign Missions said Sunday that André Lachapelle, 76, was killed in the wake of the twin natural disasters that have claimed the lives of thousands. 

A spokesman for the society said Lachapelle was in the hard-hit port city of Sendai when the quake struck. Having survived the temblor, Lachapelle tried to return to his home, a half hour drive away, but never made it. 

"He wanted to be with his community," Eloy Roy, a colleague with the mission organization, said Sunday.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press