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Two brave survivors helped after tsunami

Peter Roberts, left,  and Bill Jackson who both took part in the Japanese earthquake response.

Peter Roberts, left, and Bill Jackson who both took part in the Japanese earthquake response. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

Six of the 10 Australians honoured for their part in the nation's response to the earthquake and tsunami that struck eastern Japan, killing about 16,000 people on March 11, 2011, are Canberrans.

They, and the Defence and emergency services workers who have previously been acknowledged, were the faces, hearts and hands of Australia in the aftermath of one of the worst disasters of recent times.

''Although we talk in terms of a 'whole of government response' it is really about people on the ground,'' Bill Jackson, Australia's consul-general at the Tokyo embassy until January 2011, told Fairfax.

Mr Jackson knows what happened better than most; he had been working in Singapore when the earthquake struck and was chosen to lead the second group of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade staff sent into the disaster zone to find and help an estimated 100 missing Australians. Mr Jackson arrived in Tokyo on Monday, March 14, and was in Sendai the following day.

Peter Roberts had been at disaster central, the swamped ruins of the coastal city of Minami Sanriku, since Sunday, March 13. The Tokyo embassy official had volunteered to support the NSW Fire Brigade's Urban Search and Rescue Team, which had been flown in by the RAAF.

Few towns or cities have ever been more comprehensively devastated than this once picturesque seaside community of 20,000 people. Almost every building had been swept away by the 16-metre tsunami. Almost two years on, nearly half the pre-earthquake population is listed as either dead or missing.

Minami Sanriku is not being rebuilt on the former site - it is being moved to hills nearby.

Mr Roberts told Fairfax he had been two years into a three-year posting as the strategic and political counsellor at the Tokyo embassy when the earthquake struck at 2.46pm.

''I was in my office speaking to the defence attache,'' he said. ''There are a lot of earthquakes in Japan but this one [it lasted six minutes] just kept on going. By the end of it I was under my desk and the defence attache was using the door frame for shelter.''

He was not initially aware his wife, Lisa, had been forced to run for her life clutching Bruce, their infant son. ''She was out of town in an area where the land had been reclaimed [from the sea],'' he said. ''The ground liquefied when the earthquake hit.''

Mr Roberts did not receive an email from his wife, confirming she and Bruce were safe, until well after midnight. The pair were evacuated to Australia while he was in Minami Sanriku and the family was not reunited in Japan until months afterwards.

Mr Roberts has nothing but praise for the NSW Fire Brigade search and rescue workers, who had just responded to the Christchurch earthquake the month before, and for the stoicism and order of the Japanese people.

''Transport [into the devastated area] was very difficult. We drove up in a convoy of vehicles. I was in a station wagon with the [search] dogs. It didn't smell that good but they were great,'' he said.

Seeing the images on television had not prepared him for the reality.

''Minami Sanriku had been a beautiful seaside town,'' he said. ''We reached the debris two kilometres away. In a way it was not so confronting; the buildings had been wiped away and it didn't look like a town.''

March is winter in Japan and the rescue workers had to battle cold, food shortages and a shortage of shelter as they went about their grim and ultimately fruitless task.

''It got down to minus 17 degrees the first couple of nights,'' he said.

While some of the international teams left when it became apparent there would be no survivors under ruins that had been swamped by 16-metre waves, the Australians and New Zealanders stayed.

''We felt we had to help the town,'' Mr Roberts said.

''There weren't that many bodies even though so many people had died. Most had been washed away.''

Bill Jackson, who was leading the effort to locate Australians out of Sendai, had previously worked in Japan for four years. He was familiar with the affected area, had come to know and admire the Japanese people and felt for them in their hour of need.

''In terms of preparation for disaster our embassy, and Japan generally, would have been among the best prepared in the world,'' he said.

''Earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear disasters were all contingencies that had been planned for. But I don't think anyone had anticipated all three at the one time.''

He said while every effort was made to get Australians home, many very courageously made the decision to stay and help the Japanese with the clean-up.

''We all had concerns about the danger you couldn't see; the radiation coming from the Fukushima nuclear reactor,'' he said.

Mr Jackson said Australia's all-out and immediate response to the crisis had made an impact on the relationship between the two countries at all levels.

''We were at a restaurant having a meal and the staff came out and applauded us just for being there,'' he said.

''The Japanese people are remarkable; there was no looting, no profiteering or social disorder.''

Mr Jackson, whose 37-year career in DFAT is now over, said the award was a pleasant note to go out on. ''DFAT cops criticism from time to time but Australia operates one of the best consular services in the world.''

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