The body of a popular American teacher known as "Monty-san" has been found in the tiny coastal Japanese town where he worked, more than three weeks after the country was rocked by a powerful earthquake and devastating tsunami, his sister said Wednesday.
“We’ve got a big hole in our universe here,” said Shelley Fredrickson, a 44-year-old sales representative from Anchorage, Alaska, adding that the family was not accepting the confirmation of the death of her brother, Montgomery Dickson, officially until they travel to Japan, "for our own peace of mind."
The family received an email from the U.S. Consulate in Japan on Monday saying that police had recovered his body in the town of Rikuzentakata, said Gloria Shriver, Fredrickson's mother-in-law. Dickson's girlfriend, Naoko, then went to Rikuzentakata and identified his body.
The family knows little about the circumstances of Dickson's death. The last one to speak to the 26-year-old known as Monty was Naoko, whom he called after his students had evacuated from the school where he was teaching. Following evacuation procedure, Dickson -- a teacher with the Japan Exchange and Teaching program (JET)-- then headed to the Board of Education office on the third floor at City Hall, which was believed to be a safe haven. Instead, it was overrun by the tsunami generated by the powerful earthquake that struck offshore.
"They said his body was found a full kilometer away from the building ... and it was lucky that they found him," said Fredrickson. "Out of the 25 people that were at the Board of Education office, only five of them survived, and out of the 20 that were missing, only three of them were found so far.
"My intention is always to bring him home, regardless -- I need to bring him home."
Dickson is the second American confirmed by the U.S. State Department to have died in the disaster in Japan, out of 12,554 confirmed deaths. The other American fatality,24-year old Taylor Anderson of Richmond, Va., also was a JET teacher.
Rikuzentakata was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. An International Medical Corps team that visited soon afterward said it “was completely destroyed by the tsunami and no persons were present. Showing the depth of the tsunami wave and extent of the destruction, water marks were observed at a height of up to 10 meters (nearly 33 feet) on the sides of hills."
Fredrickson said she and other relatives plan to travel to Japan to claim his body and return it to his native Alaska.
"The Japanese they want to hurry up and cremate and get moving forward," she said. "I don't want to just receive a box of ashes at the airport. What closure do I have that this is my brother? We want to be a part of the process, I suppose, and have our own confirmation, our own closure ... and know that we're accompanying him home."
Dickson, whose parents died at different times when he was a child, lived with Fredrickson in his late teens. She said he always worked hard in school to make his mother proud, excelling in academics, and continued to strive for academic achievement after her death -- finishing among the top of his class in high school and at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, where he received a bachelor's degree in language with an emphasis in Japanese.
The search had been a full-time operation for the family, and they were only able to plan usually a day ahead, Fredrickson said. They had family in England and Hawaii helping to post word online about his disappearance, and they had been in touch with several U.S. agencies and Japanese authorities about the search.
“He loved it there in Japan. He loved the students and he loved all the culture … He always called me or wrote through emails the joy he had of living there, and I know it was a place he wanted to be. I know he lived the life that he wanted,” she said. But, “he had a lot of goals still left to fulfill and … (his life) was cut too short.”
Despite the lack of word from Dickson, who loved to compete in bike races, friends and family hadn't given up hope of finding him safe.
A hot dog vendor in Anchorage held a fundraiser on Monday -- the same day police phoned to say they had recovered his body -- called "Monty Monday," with proceeds going to support the search effort.
"It was so touching to have had that going on, waiting for confirmation," Fredrickson said, adding that she didn't even tell anyone that his body may have been located because she was hanging on to the last bit of hope. “I still didn’t want to believe it."
She said many of her brother's friends were posting messages on his Facebook page, to which their brother, Ian Dickson, was responding.
“We were all hoping that he'd be found on a mountain top, or shelter, or to simply come striding out of the rubble. This is not the case,” Dickson wrote, noting that he had been trying to find “words of solace.”
“I guess there is a peace in knowing this is part of the human condition. We all live, and we all die. If we are lucky we have a happy life. Monty's life was happy.