Area Catholic school teacher safely home from Japan disaster

By: By Tom Dermody

Erin Pantages was in a grocery store check-out line in Mito, Japan, buying candy to bring home for her students at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Peoria Heights when the earthquake struck on Friday, March 11.

The students won’t be getting the candy. Pantages left it in the basket when she and others fled from the store as the quake continued to intensify, lights started to sway and bottles began falling off shelves.

“All the kids are going to get is a story,” said Pantages, a seventh grade language arts teacher who arrived safely home on Tuesday — four days later than planned after a long-anticipated spring break visit to see a college friend who is teaching English in Japan.

But it’s quite a story, and when Pantages tells it to her classes on Friday she’ll also share a lesson in gratitude.

“Mainly I’ll say how thankful I am now for little things in life — like a pillow, a shower, clean water,” said Pantages, who for three nights after the quake slept with 60 other guests on a hotel lobby floor in Takahagi, three hours north of Tokyo.

While she was far enough inland not to be affected by the tsunami that followed the earthquake, Pantages and her traveling companion had their nerves rattled by continuing aftershocks. With communications largely cut off, she did not become aware of the scope of the disaster until the following day when she went to her friend’s church, which had power and an Internet connection.

She was also able to reassure anxious family and friends at home.

Pantages said that, before and after the disaster, the Japanese people were among “the most friendly people I’ve ever met — so willing to serve you.” Hotel staff climbed staircases deemed unsafe for guests to retrieve blankets and toothbrushes for their stranded guests.

Her hotel was scheduled to host a wedding on Saturday. When that was cancelled, the food — including the cake — was donated to those in need.

Prior to the earthquake, Pantages and her friends had travelled around the country, including Tokyo and Mt. Fuji. But those sights didn’t compare to seeing her parents at O’Hare Airport in Chicago on Tuesday.

“When the plane landed, that was the best part of the trip,” said Pantages.

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