Survivor Narratives: 1960

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Fusayo Ito

A Lady to Remember

On Sunday afternoon, May 22, 1960, word was received in Hilo that an earthquake in Chile had generated a tsunami that would arrive at about midnight. Fusayo Ito felt safe and secure in her home in Waiakea. After all, tsunamis typically did not affect that area. 

Fusayo Ito

Fusayo even invited her friends, who lived nearer to the water, to spend the night at her house. They spent a pleasant evening visiting and listening to the radio for news. As 1:00 a.m. approached without event, Fusayo and her friends surmised that the tsunami, if there was one, was over. Her friends departed while Fusayo said goodbye at the door. 

At 1:04 a.m. Fusayo was completely taken by surprise when there was a deafening roar, as the 35-foot tsunami wave brought down her house around her. She was hit on the head and lost consciousness. Her next recollection was of coming to and finding herself swirling around in the bushes that lined the Wailoa River. Clinging to her screen door, she was washed up and down the river several times, and then finally, carried out into Hilo Bay amidst all the debris. 

Unable to swim, she spent the night riding the waves, plunging down into each trough only to be brought up again, swallowing water and clinging for her life. She was so scared that she couldn’t even cry, and she spent the night drifting farther and farther from shore. By morning’s light she found herself out past the breakwater. By now she had made her peace with her destiny, and a serenity took over that she described as beautiful. 

Damage to Waiākea Town after the 1960 Tsunami.

A pilot flying into Hilo that morning spotted something flash in the water and reported it to the Coast guard, who went out to investigate. Fusayo saw them approach and thought it was a ghost ship until she heard the sound of human voices. Taken to Hilo Hospital, her first reaction was to hug everyone she met; she thought she would never again see another human being. 

Fusayo had a daughter with whom she was very close. Through the years, Fusayo had purchased savings bonds for her daughter. She kept them in a zippered satchel in her home. Everything Fusayo owned was lost in the waves, including her satchel with the savings bonds. Fusayo went to live with her daughter, as far away from the ocean as possible.

The cleanup process in Hilo took months. Six months later a bulldozer operator, who stepped down to make adjustments to his equipment, spied a zippered satchel on the ground. Opening it up, he found the dirt-encrusted savings bonds with the names clearly visible. He turned them in to the police. A call from the police department brought Fusayo down to collect her bonds, which she described as her second miracle of this event.

Destruction in Waiākea after the 1960 tsunami.

Fusayo multiplied the miracle in her life many times over with the volunteer work she did for the community. She volunteered for the Red Cross, March of Dimes, Easter Seals, Cancer Society, Heart Association, and Christmas Seals. At age 96 she still volunteered once a week at the Pacific Tsunami Museum. Visitors would marvel at her stories and positive attitude. She taught us about life and how to truly savor it by helping others and doing good deeds. She always smiled, spoke kind words, and shared what she had with others.