Pamela Stewart frantically dialed and redialed the telephone number of the Japanese elementary school Fukashiba, where her son Nick Nowak was teaching English.
For over eight hours on March 11, Stewart and her husband Brad listened to silence on the other end of the line as they struggled with the possibility Nick might not make it back to their Oak Forest home. And they weren't alone.
Eight thousand miles away, Nowak, 26, was huddled in a classroom, riding out the earliest rumbles of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that rocked northeastern Japan. For two days Nowak, his coworkers and their students hunkered down in the school as aftershocks throttled the building. With electricity, but no running water, they turned to Spider solitaire to keep their minds off of the obvious as televisions within the school blared with the highest level of tsunami warning. Stationed in a school on flat ground in the Southern Ibaraki territory, a mile and a half away from the coast, they were all in a precarious spot.
"For the first time in my life, I really thought maybe I could die," Nowak said. "I don't know how many people have ever experienced that ...
"I was definitely thinking this could be my last night alive. We stayed at that school and basically just prayed for our lives. That night was probably one of the worst nights of my life. I felt like a sitting duck the whole time."
It wasn't until 2 a.m. in Japan when Nowak finally broke through busy phone lines to speak with his parents.
"My Dad thought I was dead," Nowak said. "My mom was relieved to know I was alive."
Brad's heart lifted when Pam heard Nick's voice.
"My heart ached for her," Brad Stewart said of the time they spent waiting. "Nick is her little baby. When you don't know where your child is, it's just brutal.
"So she could hear his voice, that was key. For those six to eight hours without knowing. ... I don't wish that on anybody."
Nowak had lived there for a year and before the earthquake, he was set on staying an additional year. Though the magnitude of this quake was unlike any in history (recent or distant), Nowak said earthquakes are a common occurrence and residents get used to them. Some mornings, a subtle shaking roused him from his sleep. He would roll over and fall back into slumber. Earthquakes are a part of Japanese life, but so are sushi and sake, both things he loves.
The students were finishing up their school year that day, and Nowak had planned to re-contract with his company. Instead, four days after their last day of school, he fled home, at the cost of $2,500 plane ticket (and a $400 cab ride to fetch an emergency passport). Now the Andrew High School and Lewis University grad hops from his Orland Hills home to his parents' Oak Forest home.
The earthquake and tsunami caused severe damage, leaving thousands of people confirmed dead, injured or missing, and millions without electricity, water and transportation. Aftershocks continue to pulse through the area as fear of nuclear radiation threatens the population.
He checks up on friends and coworkers still in Japan via Facebook or email. Many are stranded until airfare drops; some have told Nowak that one-way flights into the U.S. have jumped to $10,000.
Pam couldn't breathe a sigh of relief until his plane touched down at O'Hare International Airport, and even then, it didn't wash over her.
"That doubt did not go away until he got off that airplane and I saw him," Pam Stewart.
Home At Last
That night, Pam piled Nowak's plate high with Polish foods. He visited with family and held his nephew, who'd been born in the year that he was gone, for the first time.
"I was waiting for so long to do that," Nowak said. "I was happy to be able to do that."
As he watches the American coverage of the event, he reflects on the people who welcomed him as one of their own. The school's principal even offered Nowak his office as a place to sleep the first night of the shut-in.
"It was nice of them to highlight the fact that how calm and collected the Japanese people were, because they really were," Nowak said. "They were completely in control the whole time. The principal was on top of everything."
Nowak is hunting for a job locally, specifically teaching or tutoring positions. Though he's home, he left a piece of his heart in Japan, and someday sooner rather than later, he may want to return for it.
"It's become like home to me. I loved it. I wouldn't mind going back," Nowak said. "You know there's going to be earthquakes, you get used to it. You have that fear, but you just don't care."
But Pam Stewart seems to mind.
"I'm not real comfortable with it, but I want him to pursue his dreams," Pam said.
He won't return until it's safe, Nowak reassured Pam. They shouldn't worry, because he isn't.
"To be through an experience like that made me change my perspective on life. I cherish every day now," Nowak said. "I'm happy, I'm relieved, but still very sad about what's going on there.
"But I think they're strong people and they can pull through it."