Photo/Illutration Tadanari Uwashitomi, left, and Seiji Kawaguchi with a swimming pool for young children used to rescue people stranded in Kuma, Kumamoto Prefecture, on July 7 following the deluge. (Toshihiro Kashiwagi)

KUMA, Kumamoto Prefecture--When more than 40 residents were stranded in this village flooded by overflowing river water, what carried them to safety was not a boat, but a plastic swimming pool for young children.

Around 4 a.m. on July 4, Tadanari Uwashitomi, a deputy head of a community volunteer fire brigade, was evacuating 17 people to the second floor of his home in the Konose district of Kuma.

But floodwaters from the Kumagawa river kept rising, almost reaching the second floor. Uwashitomi, 46, racked his brains to find a way they could survive.

“I am in charge of the lives of these people,” he kept telling himself.

Then he spotted Seiji Kawaguchi, a 41-year-old member of the brigade, at a day care center on elevated land about 30 meters away.

When Kawaguchi heard Uwashitomi shout, “Rope! Rope!” he managed to get one from a house nearby.

Kawaguchi then swam to a garage near Uwashitomi’s house to tie it down, with the other end tied at the day care center.

Among the 17 people who were evacuating in Uwashitomi’s home were a 4-month-old boy and elderly people.

After swimming back to the day care center, Kawaguchi frantically searched for a boat--or something that could work as one. He saw a swimming pool made of fiber-reinforced plastic in the center’s yard.

It was 1.7 meters wide, 4.6 meters long and weighed about 50 kilograms.

He lugged it with Kenshi Takada, a village fire fighter, to test if it floats. He was relieved when he saw it did.

Kawaguchi, pulling the pool, waded through the muddy water to the garage along the rope to transport the people trapped in Uwashitomi’s house.

He shuttled back and forth between the day care center and the garage to carry them to safety.

Several hours later, many people in the district were still stranded in the second floors or on the roofs of their homes.

Takada, aboard the pool and navigating it with a laundry pole, made his way to those houses to rescue them as water levels kept rising.

One of those saved by the commandeered swimming pool was Haruyo Indo, a 73-year-old woman who lived in the neighborhood.

Indo had almost given up hope that she and her husband would survive when the couple were left alone in their living room.

“This must be it,” she told her husband, 81.

Floodwaters were coming close to her chest, making it extremely difficult to evacuate together, given her husband’s heart condition.

Then Indo heard a man shout, “Are you all right?”

When the two were carried over the shoulder of the man out of their house, the swimming pool awaited them.

“I could make it,” Indo thought to herself.

In total, 45 residents were rescued.

What made it all worthwhile for Uwashitomi was when the people rescued said they would not have made it without the fire brigade members’ quick, last-minute thinking.

(This article was written by Toshihiro Kashiwagi and Makiko Komatsu.)