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Fukushima Survivor: ‘I’ve Hardly Smiled This Whole Year’

March 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Carl Pillitteri was one of 38 Americans at the Fukushima plant when the earthquake hit. Describing the "demonic" sounds he heard and the pit of fear he felt inside the turbine building that day, Pillteri recently spoke with Alex Chadwick, the host of the new American Public Media series "BURN: An Energy Journal."
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, one other story about the emotional toll of Fukushima a year later.

It’s not well-known there were 38 Americans at the Fukushima plant when the earthquake hit. Carl Pillitteri, a nuclear technician, was one of them.

He recently spoke with Alex Chadwick, the host for the new American Public Media series “BURN: An Energy Journal.” It’s the first time any American who was at the plant has spoken at length to the media.

He started out by telling Chadwick what it was like inside the turbine building that day.

CARL PILLITTERI, Nuclear Technician: The entire building was moving.

And then I remember praying aloud for everyone, for all of us, just praying aloud. And I’m thinking that we’re going to perish inside this turbine building. And I can still hear the turbine making its most unwelcome sounds in front of us there.

I remember praying aloud for everyone, for all of us, just praying aloud. And I'm thinking that we're going to perish inside this turbine building.Carl Pillitteri, Fukushima Survivor

ALEX CHADWICK, American Public Media: Can you describe what the sounds were like coming out of the earth?

CARL PILLITTERI: They were almost demonic in the way they sounded.

You know, it’s just — and I don’t know what was generating these sounds, if it was the earth itself, or the building being flexed or moved, or the upheaval of the building.

ALEX CHADWICK: And it’s still going on, the shaking, the jolting is still going on.

CARL PILLITTERI: On the unit one turbine deck was the only time I thought I might perish.

I had gotten to a point where I had surrendered. And that surrender was — you know, I remember asking to make it quick.

ALEX CHADWICK: Carl Pillitteri finally did get his crew out of the turbine building safely. And then the tsunami hit. Luckily, it only came halfway up a hill they were on. The workers escaped and made their way to Tokyo. Since then, Carl Pillitteri has been reliving that day.

CARL PILLITTERI: The morning of the 13th, when we all woke up from our first night’s sleep in the hotel there in Tokyo, I came down to the lobby and I saw one table with co-workers at it.

And I said, I think I have been traumatized. And I’m sure the way I sounded, you know, made my point. And Butch to the right of me burst into tears, a full-grown man. Danny, to the left of me, chokes up.

And that morning breakfast breakdown was when I realized, yeah, this was more than I bargained for on March 11.

ALEX CHADWICK: So, but what — just, generally, how did you feel being back in Tokyo?

CARL PILLITTERI: The air about Tokyo was people were laughing and people were just going about their daily business. I’m sure there were a lot of people also cleaning the store shelves or whatever that was going on there.

But it was uneasy for me, because I’m thinking, just a short distance north of here, where I just left a day ago, no one’s laughing. We weren’t laughing. I have hardly laughed this whole year. I have hardly smiled this whole year. And that’s something I miss.

I mean, a lot of people lost lives, and there some really — it’s heartbreaking. But to actually stand there on that ground during that earthquake and that tsunami, and to know that these people are in trouble, I’m on high ground, but they are not, it’s something I have got to — I’m marked. I’m marked for life, I guess, with it. I guess it’s something I just got to deal with.

ALEX CHADWICK: It must be difficult for you.

CARL PILLITTERI: When I first got home, I was waking up 2:00 a.m., 1:30. You know, I couldn’t even sleep really when I first got home.

And I took to drinking beer every night just to get to sleep. That’s another story in itself. I took to drinking beer to get myself a little numb and get to sleep. But pretty quick, I got into this 5:30 a.m. routine where I wake up, get my dog, put her in the truck. We’d go to McDonald’s. It opens at 6:00. We’d have my coffee and my hotcakes.

And then I went to church. So, that went on for well over a month. But that first month, I was trying to stay busy, but I was also somewhat disabled. I didn’t know it, though. I didn’t realize it. As a matter of fact, it was April 11 when I turned on CNN, and the commentator said something about it being 30 days after or one month after the events or something like that.

I turned it off. I turned to my wife and I said, well, what’s today’s date? And she said it was April 11. And I remember saying, good God, I need help. Its just one month. And I — so I. . .

ALEX CHADWICK: You didn’t know a month had gone by?

CARL PILLITTERI: Yeah, I didn’t know a month had gone by.

And I started some phone counseling that was offered to me by my company. And the first call didn’t go all that well. It was — I was told I’d only have five calls, an hour-long for five weeks.

And, anyway, I think she soon realized that, four months later, she was still needing to talk to me.

ALEX CHADWICK: I’m going to ask you about getting back to Japan.

But kind of, generally, did you start to feel safe again?

CARL PILLITTERI: I don’t think I felt safe for — I don’t think I felt safe for quite some time. I want to put weeks, maybe months on it, because I developed this sixth sense where I kept one foot on the ground, waiting for tremors.

On April 30, I went reluctantly to Taipei, from my home to Taipei with my wife for her girlfriend’s wedding. The first night in Taipei, a five-point-something hits south of us. And it’s only three in Taiwan — in Taipei, I should say. I feel it. I jump up. I told my wife, I knew I shouldn’t have come.

Like, I wanted to fly to visit my family in New Jersey, but I didn’t have the courage to do so.

ALEX CHADWICK: Carl Pillitteri, what do you want for yourself now?

CARL PILLITTERI: What do I want for myself?

I want to get back to my old self. I want to get back to my — I just want to be able to breathe freely again. I think I’ve tried my best to get over it, but I don’t think I’m ever going to get over it. I’ve closed some doors, but I think I’m never going to be able to close them all.

RAY SUAREZ: We will be posting more of this interview later tonight on our website.

In the coming weeks, Alex Chadwick will examine energy efficiency and oil production on his public radio series.