The first military family members evacuated from post-earthquake Japan arrived Saturday morning at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the initial wave of several thousand expected to arrive in the Puget Sound area over the next few days.
The chartered flight was the first of dozens that will leave Japan this week, loaded with military and Department of Defense employees who decided to take the government up on its offer to fly them home for 30 days.
The initial flight, filled with 233 military family members and nine pet dogs from Yokota Air Base, near Tokyo, touched down at Sea-Tac at 9:50 a.m. Saturday.
The Yokota base is about 150 miles from the damaged nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
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After passing through customs, the families gathered at the airport’s auditorium, which had been turned into a gathering and problem-solving area for the returnees.
“This is controlled chaos,” said Don Leingang, executive director of the Puget Sound USO, which is helping feed the arrivals and get them to connecting flights.
“The scary thing is, this is going to happen about 15 more times,” Leingang said, “and everybody has issues.”
J. Overton, a Navy spokesman helping to coordinate the arrivals, said 13 more “voluntary departure” flights are scheduled to arrive at Sea-Tac by March 27.
In all, Overton said, about 6,700 military family members are expected to travel through Sea-Tac on their way to their homes across the United States.
Other evacuees will travel through Los Angeles and San Francisco, he said.
Contingency plans to bring home some family members on military flights to Joint Base Lewis-McChord are in place and may or may not come to pass, Overton said.
“We only found out about this last night,” he said, “so things undoubtedly could change.”
U.S. military families who arrived from Japan said they were relieved to get away from the stresses that followed last week’s massive earthquake and tsunami.
At the top of their list of concerns was the threat of radiation from damaged nuclear plants.
“I’ve been kind of going crazy with thoughts about the radiation,” said Lisa Whiteman, 26, whose husband works for the Armed Forces Network.
“There were no straight answers about risks,” she said. “They were saying you have no cause to worry, but if you want to leave, please do.”
Meanwhile, she said, the Japanese have closed all of their schools and wear surgical masks everywhere.
“I just figured that there were too many unknowns,” she said. “I wasn’t willing to wait 30 years to find out if the radiation actually did something important, or to stay there for another month and then be told it was too late.”
Whiteman said she also felt that she was wasting valuable resources.
“I was afraid to ride my bike because I was worried about the air,” she said, “so I was driving everywhere.”
Sarah Russell, 24, made the flight with her son Jonas, who is 19 months old, and was waiting for a flight to Sacramento, where she’ll spend a month with her parents.
“He’s so young, I didn’t want him to be affected by the radiation that may or may not be there,” she said.
“Also,” she said, “we’re trying to have another baby. I don’t know if I’m pregnant, but if I am, I don’t want to take any chances.”
“It’s just scary.”
Nearly 200 of those on the initial flight were children, and volunteers at the airport struggled to keep them amused in an impromptu playroom, with Legos, board games and movies.
Sylvia Allen, a retired Air Force recreation specialist from Lakewood, made her way through the room with a roll of masking tape and a marker, attaching a strip to the back of each child, with their name and age written on it.
“I heard on the news this morning that they were coming, and I figured they would need help,” Allen said. “We’re just trying to keep them busy. They’re tired; they’re stressed, so the busier we can keep them, the better.”
All of the children seemed to be coping just fine with the upheaval, Allen said.
“Military kids are very resilient,” she said. “They’re used to being pulled from pillar to post.”
Bryce Yazzie, 16, waited with his mother and brother to return to Salt Lake City. He said that depending on how long it takes for it to become safe to return to Japan, he and his brother might finish the school year in Utah, then return to Japan this summer. His father is in the Air Force, and they’ve been living in Japan for the past year and a half.
“With the nuclear reactor, the worst-case scenario could be bad, so my dad signed us up for the voluntary evacuation,” Yazzie said.
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693 firstname.lastname@example.org
The Associated Press contributed to this report.