- James Hall
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TAVARES, Fla. -- News of the devastating earthquake in Japan hit the shores of Florida's Harris Chain of lakes with emotional force.
Past Classic champ Takahiro Omori and Elite contenders Kotaro Kiriyama and Yusuke Miyazaki all have immediate family in Tokyo, very near where the 8.9-level quake and ensuing tsunami rocked the Asian island country. Elite Series angler Morizo Shimizu also has family in Japan, although they are in Osaka, well west of the tragedy's ground zero.
"I found out there was a big earthquake this morning, just before we launched. I wasn't able to get in touch with my family before the tournament began, so I was very worried all day," said Miyazaki.
Bassmaster Elite Series anglers are not allowed to use cell phones during competition unless there is an emergency on the water.
As soon as Miyazaki weighed in, he called his wife, who was still feeling the aftershocks in Tokyo.
"My parents' roof has fallen," he said between bursts of concerned conversation in Japanese. "There is a gas leak. They are trying to fix it now. But, thankfully, everyone is safe. None of my family has been harmed."
Kiriyama is not so sure. He has been unable to talk to his mother since before the massive quake and resulting 30-foot wall of water hit the northeastern portion of the country.
"I talked to my mother this morning at 4 a.m. when I woke and heard of the earthquake," he explained. Kiriyama's mother lives 40 miles east of Tokyo ... and just 20 miles from the coast that's been consumed by debris-riddled water swallowing entire towns as it gushed inland.
"She was sitting in the middle of our living room when the earthquake hit," he said. "We have two giant bookshelves on each side of the living room. Both of them fell toward her at the same time.
"Luckily, they met each other in the middle and stuck, creating a triangle. Had they not met, they would have easily crushed her."
However, since the tsunami hit, Kiriyama has not been able to contact his mother. As he watched internet videos of the watery devastation, he was visibly shaken.
Omori was able to contact his family, including a grandmother that turned 100 years old this year, just after he weighed his fish.
"Everyone is doing OK," he said. "But we are very worried that if they do not get the power fixed my grandmother will have trouble."
Omori's grandmother is bedridden and lives in a high-rise apartment building on the 7th floor.
Although Shimizu's family resides in Osaka, the opposite end of the country from where the earthquake struck, he has many friends in the Tokyo area.
"I have been unable to speak to any of my friends because the phone lines are down. I went through a very big earthquake in Osaka years ago, and I know how scary and dangerous they can be. I am now very worried for my friends. I may fly back to Japan as soon as possible," he said.
All four Japanese pros missed the Day Three cut. All admitted, understandably, that the disaster and unknown fates of friends and family members weighed heavily on their minds.
"I tried to concentrate on fishing, but I just kept wondering about my family and if they are still alive," Miyazaki said.
"All of my family is in Tokyo," added Omori. "And although they make the buildings there to withstand earthquakes, this one was so big. All day I thought about their safety."
As of this writing, an estimated 400 have been found dead and 700 are missing. Aftershocks are still ravaging the area, dams have broken and nuclear power plants are overheating. Countless miles of Japan's countryside is covered in sludge created by the remnants of houses, boats, cars, bridges and lost lives.
All four Elite Series anglers are considering returning to Japan, depending on the upcoming news from their families.
All flights from the United States to Japan have been cancelled until the breadth of this disaster can be understood. If the anglers decide to return home, they would miss the second Elite Series event being held next week on Florida's St. Johns River.
1dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne