Photo/Illutration Miyuki Hayakawa and her three children in Kobe’s Nagata Ward on Jan. 6. (Nobuhiro Shirai)

KOBE--When Miyuki Hayakawa enrolled in the environment and disaster mitigation course at her high school here in 2002, she was not interested in the field.

Little did she know it was about to usher in a new chapter of her life.

The program was established at the prefectural Maiko High School as the nation’s first such course following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. The aim was to nurture personnel-leading efforts to help local communities in the case of a disaster based on lessons learned from the event.

Hayakawa’s mother, 43, was one of the more than 6,400 victims killed in the powerful temblor that hit Kobe and the surrounding areas in the early morning of Jan. 17, 1995. She was a second-grader at the time.

Each time the anniversary of the disaster approached, she felt depressed. She just did not want to know anything about earthquakes.

Still, Hayakawa ended up attending the course because she was told that she could study welfare as well. She thought completing the course might help her chances in finding a job because she wanted to land one right after graduating from high school.

She soon realized she was wrong about her choice after all. She told the head of the course, Seiji Suwa, almost every day that she wanted to quit the school.

But then one day, about a month after her first school year began, a former firefighter who led rescue and recovery efforts in the 1995 quake visited her class to share his experiences.

Shozo Fujii was the deputy chief of the city’s Tarumi Fire Station in Kobe at the time. He was involved in operations in the city's Nagata Ward, which was engulfed in flames.

Although Fujii, now 72, recounted calmly what he saw and ran into in the middle of a maelstrom, his hand suddenly began trembling while holding a microphone as he described his experiences at the municipal West Hospital.

“There was one individual we could not save,” he said.

When he reached the hospital on the evening that day, Fujii was told many inpatients were buried alive in the collapse of the hospital’s fifth floor.

He ordered his crew to break the wall with a rock drill to pull out the patients trapped between beds under the debris.

They rescued 41 patients, one by one, in the operation that continued through around 1 a.m. But one person was still missing: a woman whose last name was Nagao, according to a list of patients provided by hospital officials.

A patient in the same room as Nagao said she had just left the room before the quake struck.

But the firefighters could not afford to spare any more time at the hospital and raced to their next site. The city was in shambles and needed their immediate help.

The following day, he learned from a colleague that the woman’s body was found. She turned out to be the only person Fujii’s crew could not save during their entire rescue mission.

The firefighters repeatedly calling out her name still linger in his mind even many years after that day.

Bitter memories of being unable to rescue her came rushing back, and he could not hold back his tears in front of the class.

Hayakawa could not believe what she was hearing and lowered her eyes.

She had realized that the person he could not save was her own mother.

She murmured to her best friend seated next to her, “He is the one who went to rescue my mother.”

Hayakawa’s maiden name was Nagao and her mother’s name was Yumiko Nagao. Her mother was hospitalized at the time but she was expected to temporarily return home that day.

Neither Fujii nor school officials had prior knowledge that the victim’s daughter was among the students. It was a sheer coincidence.

Hayakawa does not remember much of the rest of the day as she was so overwhelmed by what had happened. She did not expect to hear the circumstances surrounding her mother’s death when Fujii came.

But she remembers one thing clearly: Fujii’s account had a decisive impact on the course of her life, and that day marked a turning point for her.

“I gave up the idea of quitting school,” she wrote in an essay during the class.

She did not speak with Fujii during his visit to the school and she has not had contact with him since.

But she was relieved to know, finally, that there were people who did their best to rescue her mother until the last moment.

In her second year, she described her experiences of the disaster for the first time in public at the request of her teacher.

It was something she could not bring herself to do for many years despite knowing the importance of sharing her story so others could learn from it.

Hayakawa, now 34, formed bonds with other children who lost their relatives in the disaster, as well as with support groups.

After graduating from high school, Hayakawa traveled to communities devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan and to those rocked by the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake in China to recount what she went through.

She married in 2013 and has three children. This year, her oldest child, a 7-year-old boy named Tsunagu, will be in the same grade she was in when the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck.

Hayakawa said she is ready to tell him what she experienced on that fateful day 27 years ago on Jan. 17.