By HIROKI KOIKE/ Staff Writer
January 14, 2020 at 18:40 JST
NISHINOMIYA, Hyogo Prefecture--Coach driver Yoshio Fukumoto was weary on the final stretch of a 500-kilometer journey when he experienced a blinding flash of white light and the Hanshin Expressway started shaking intensely and buckling. It was 5:46 a.m.
Fukumoto will never forget Jan. 17, 1995, the day the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck, leveling much of Kobe and killing more than 6,000 people.
His bus departed the renowned Nozawa hot spring ski resort in snowy Nagano Prefecture, central Japan, at 6 p.m. the previous day. Fukumoto took turns driving with another driver, Yoshimasa Yasui, during the long overnight trip to the Sannomiya district in Kobe.
Then aged 52 and a veteran with more than 20 years behind the wheel, Fukumoto dropped some passengers off at JR Kyoto Station early on Jan. 17 and then others at a hotel in Osaka’s Umeda district.
Only three of the original 43 passengers were still on the bus, women who appeared to be in their 20s and were traveling together. They were seated in the middle row, all asleep.
Fukumoto was driving in Nishinomiya toward Kobe on the expressway at 70 kph when he experienced the flash of light, a natural phenomenon that is sometimes observed right before a major earthquake hits.
“What was that light?” Fukumoto asked Yasui, then 32, in a seat nearby.
Right then, the bus started swaying violently from side to side.
Fukumoto gripped the steering wheel with all his might to maintain control and slammed on the brakes.
“The brakes do not work!” he screamed.
But within a few seconds, which seemed like an eternity, the bus abruptly stopped. After he yanked on the parking brake and breathed a sigh of relief, the expressway in front had vanished. The vehicle was perched atop the expressway and the front windshield showed a view of the ground many meters below.
A quarter of the length of the bus was dangling in the air.
Some vehicles traveling that section of the expressway were not so lucky. Fukumoto noticed that a car traveling in the opposite lane had plummeted to the ground and was in flames.
Yasui apprised the three female passengers of the emergency.
“There has been a giant earthquake,” he told them. “There is no longer a road ahead.”
The party of five gingerly made their way to the rear of the inclined vehicle to disembark through the emergency exit there.
One of the women landed on her behind when she looked down at the darkness ahead after the expressway collapsed.
Fukumoto managed to make his way back to the Kyoto branch of his company three days later. Television reporters kept updating the surging death toll, which eventually reached 6,434.
The searing image of Fukumoto’s bus, which so narrowly escaped a deadly plunge in the disaster, was broadcast repeatedly and photos of it were printed numerous times in newspapers to illustrate the destructive force of the earthquake.
Media outlets called Fukumoto “Miracle Fuku-chan,” referring to his nickname.
Students taking school entrance examinations came to touch his bus in the hope of sharing in its good fortune.
But Fukumoto observed the craze with a watchful eye.
“It was an experience that others will never understand unless they go through it themselves,” he said, referring to the horror he felt at the time.
In summer that year, the three female passengers who traveled on the bus came to see him at his office. It was like a “alumni reunion,” according to Fukumoto. Without hardly having to say a thing, they all fully grasped the fear and astonishment they felt during the disaster.
Six years later, Fukumoto switched jobs to drive a bus for the baseball team of a private high school in Kyoto.
Now aged 77, he continues to stay in touch with one of the three women, exchanging New Year’s greeting cards and receiving an email every six months or so.
The woman, who is from Kobe, called him several years ago to tell him that she was visiting Kyoto, where he lives, and wanted to see him if he had time.
They caught up over coffee at a café near his home.
“How are you doing these days?” he asked her. “I've been overseas,” she replied.
“Be careful you don't get your purse stolen,” he replied.
Their conversations remain casual and chatty, and never get too profound. Fukumoto said it is enough for him because the reunion allows them to confirm the other person is fine.
He sometimes wonders why they keep meeting all these years later.
The only thing he can think of is to remind themselves that what separates life and death is an extremely fine line and nobody knows when their turn will come.
The Hanshin Expressway collapsed at five sections on its Kobe line and Wangan line and toppled on its side for 635 meters along a stretch in Kobe’s Higashi-Nada Ward, claiming 16 lives altogether.
After the quake, projects were carried out across Japan to make structures more quake resistant by strengthening bridge columns with steel plates and fiber materials and installing rubber shock absorbers in structural supports.
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