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Witness to disaster: Six months on from Japan's tsunami

By Nicolas Ito for CNN
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Capturing a nightmare
  • Akiko Iwasaki was heading for high ground when she was caught in the March 11 tsunami
  • The hotel owner sank below the surface, just as cars and other debris swept over her
  • Remarkably she survived the ordeal and is now determined to rebuild her hotel
  • The devastated city of Kamaishi, where 900 died, is slowly starting to recover

Kamaishi, Japan (CNN) -- Akiko Iwasaki could see it, the higher ground that would keep her safe. But she didn't make it.

She was only a few feet away when she was swallowed by a massive wave which carried away cars, houses -- basically everything in its path.

At first, she thought her life would end there. But she wasn't afraid. She realized she was not prepared to die yet.

"I wanted to live," Iwasaki recalled of the moment almost six months to the day when northeastern Japan was hit by the giant tsunami triggered by an earthquake.

Japan's new PM pledges to rebuild

"I started swimming up towards the surface of the water. There was a boat above me, but somehow, I moved it out of the way. Then the light became brighter above and I thought I could be saved if I reached the surface."

Iwasaki had been trying to escape along a small path leading up the hill behind the hotel she owned in Kamaishi when she was suddenly engulfed by rushing water.

Some of the Horaikan's employees and neighbors who had already climbed high up the hill saw her disappear into a whirlpool. She sank below the surface, just as cars and other debris swept over her. Iwasaki's daughter screamed as she watched her mother disappear.

Because I survived, I believe I should live my life fully, for the people who lost theirs.
--Akiko Iwasaki
Witnesses look back at tsunami

Satoshi Ito, the hotel manager, had already escaped high into the hills that day. From his smartphone, he captured the scene as the hotel's employees tried to escape the tsunami. He looked back and saw that large debris was crashing against the mountainside where Iwasaki was just seconds ago.

Watch Satoshi's footage Video

"It took a little while," Ito said, "before realizing that we might have lost Iwasaki's life."

But moments later Iwasaki emerged from the water, 50 feet away from where she disappeared. She was swept onto a nearby hillside with other debris.

She cannot explain how she survived; why she wasn't one of the 20,000 people who died or are still missing following the disaster.

"I was just lucky," she said. "All the conditions for me to survive were there at that particular moment. Had it happened even a little earlier or a little later, I would have probably died."

The Horaikan, a four story hotel sitting proudly by a cliff looking out to the ocean, was ironically a designated tsunami evacuation spot for nearby residents to seek refuge. But few could have imagined a 48-foot high wave like the one that hit on March 11.

The tsunami submerged the hotel's lower two floors, destroying the entrance and kitchen. Iwasaki may have miraculously survived but she lost a number of employees and close friends.

But she is determined to rebuild everything. She said her near death experience changed the way she viewed life.

"Everyday I think about how to live my life," she said. "There are times when I get to an answer and other times I don't. But while I'm searching for that answer, I try to live thinking that I have an important role in life.

"I don't have any clear answer yet. But because I survived, I believe I should live my life fully, for the people who lost theirs."

Six months on from the tsunami, she lives in one of the temporary houses built by the government. It's 12 miles away from her hotel but she comes back every morning to supervise the reconstruction work. By 8 a.m., workers are already hard at work and the sound of electric drills and hammers echoes through the morning air.

When she first decided to rebuild the hotel her mother started, Iwasaki hoped to get it up and running by August. The biggest obstacle proved to be securing a loan. Like many of the tsunami survivors, Iwasaki needed to take out a second mortgage on the hotel. She had little financial help from the government and had to convince the bank to lend her the money on her own.

Ito remains the hotel's manager. He says the government, both local and federal, is not moving quickly enough to help victims.

"The government is taking a great deal of time to make decisions concerning reconstruction," said Ito. "I think they're acting too slowly."

The financial paperwork was finally done by early August. By the middle of the month, electricity had returned and water was running into the hotel bathroom taps again. The third and fourth floors that had not been hit by the tsunami were ready to be used by any willing guests, albeit with a lack of hot water. Their new goal is to welcome new guests by October.

Across Kamaishi, reconstruction is happening slowly. The vast amount of rubble that once filled the city's streets has been cleared away and many unstable buildings have been leveled, leaving behind the concrete foundations on which to rebuild again in the future.

The thriving steel industry the city was once famous for is beginning to recover, while the fishermen who had not lost their boats are back at sea. Life is slowly returning to a city where nearly 900 people lost their lives, while 200 remain missing.

Determined people like Iwasaki are at the heart of this reconstruction.

Her dream is not only to rebuild her hotel the way it was before the disaster but to make it cozier and livelier. She hopes to build an outdoor stage and have people come together to play music.

"Rather than just thinking about me, thinking about other people and my hometown has become more important," she said.

"I wish to rebuild this place for the future of our children and to recover beautiful Kamaishi for the people who visit here."

CNN's Kyung Lah contributed to this report.