When Glendora firefighter Chris Adomeit arrived with Los Angeles County Fire Search and Rescue team members in earthquake and tsunami-ravaged Japan on March 12, not even a decade of training and experience as a firefighter could prepare him for the surreal images of devastation.
Leveled homes and buildings stretched as far as the eye can see, mangled railroad tracks looked like scrap metal, while cars perched atop second story buildings. Rescuers walked in the rain and snow, through eerily silent and ravaged towns. They inspected houses sitting on top of houses, searching for any signs of life.
They found more bodies than survivors.
But a month after the L.A. County firefighters returned home from their weeklong mission in Ofunato City, 40-year-old Adomeit says it’s not the graphic images of mass destruction that resonate, rather the few positive examples of hope amidst the wreckage.
“What really struck me was that people were just trying to pick up where they left off,” recalled Adomeit. “So many people went back to their homes, or whatever was left, and immediately began rebuilding.”
During their mission, Adomeit and his team came across a home where mud and debris had swept through the entire structure. The family was already at the home sweeping out the mud and moving around furniture—some of it from homes miles away.
Adomeit is one of only 200 firefighters qualified to participate in international search and rescue missions. The Chino Hills resident, who has worked with fire station 86 in Glendora for three years, was one of 74 selected for deployment in Japan. The California team was joined by firefighters from Fairfax, VA, and the United Kingdom.
Adomeit was also part of a team deployed to Haiti following last year’s 7.0 earthquake. But Adomeit said nothing he has ever been involved in can compare to devastation caused by one of Japan’s most catastrophic disasters in history.
“Photographs don’t do it justice of what you saw,” said Adomeit. “You go to Universal Studios and see the props, but this is beyond any kind of movie set or what you see in movies. It’s unreal and it’s sad.”
Once in Japan, the firefighters set up camp at a local school gymnasium. Every morning, Adomeit said the ground would rumble through another aftershock.
Over the week, firefighters and search dogs looked for victims in the debris and in crushed and unstable structures, but were unable to find survivors, according to L.A. County Fire Captain Marc Savage.
"Things are looking difficult," he said at the time of the firefighters’ deployment. “These places have just been leveled.”
A month since leaving Japan, where the death toll has risen to 18,000, Adomeit says he tries not to dwell on the emotional impact of the devastation.
“You can’t get too wrapped up into it,” said Adomeit. “You just have to look ahead.”
But the experience helped put into perspective an important life lesson. Upon returning home, Adomeit said he was thrilled to see his family again.
“People worry about a dent in their car, and in Japan, there are people who’ve lost everything they ever had,” said Adomeit. “It makes you really appreciate what you have.”