Chicago-area man escaped tsunami, returns to U.S.

March 18, 2011 7:44:07 PM PDT
A Chicago-area family that just barely escaped from the tsunami in Japan landed at O'Hare Airport Friday afternoon.

It is an emotional homecoming for Eric Berka as he tells his tale of survival.

"I was at the airport when the earthquake hit," Berka said. "They told me go ahead and go home, and I drove away, and I missed the tsunami by two minutes. I should have stayed at the airport-- and there were people standing outside the places of business and their houses, and I passed them in my car, and they are all gone."

The west suburban native and his family are finally safe. They arrived at O'Hare Airport Friday afternoon -- after not only surviving the earthquake that struck Japan, but also narrowly missing the massive tsunami by just minutes.

The images of a broken country remain vivid.

"We saw the trucks carrying out the dead bodies," said Berka's wife Satoko.

Berka has lived overseas for over a decade. He first traveled to Japan as an exchange student, but decided to stay. He eventually married, had a daughter, Sophia, and founded an English-speaking school, the Chicago English School.

Although Berka's parents visited Japan, he had recently returned to his adopted home after attending his mother's funeral. She passed away six weeks ago.

"For the three days I didn't know where they were at, it was hard," said Arthur Messer, Berka's father.

Berka says it was ultimately the threat of radiation from a failing nuclear power plant that forced his family to flee.

And, although they've been temporarily forced to abandon their life in Japan, the Berkas vow to return.

"We're sad to leave all our family and friends, but, yeah, we're relieved to get out," Berka said.

One of the hardships of leaving Japan, Berka said, was leaving the family dog behind. They left it with friends.

The area where the family lives is about 60 miles from a nuclear power plant. School is supposed to begin in April and, Berka says, they want to do repair and open for the students.