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Call after Japanese quake was last word from Alaskan

Casey Grove
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

As the ground shook during the Japan earthquake on March 11, an Anchorage man living in the coastal city of Rikuzentakata evacuated with the students at one of the schools where he taught.

Monty Dickson called his girlfriend minutes later -- the last time anyone heard from him -- and then a tsunami wave reported at almost 50 feet high swept through the city.

Carrying boats, cranes and pieces of dock, the water leveled nearly every structure, except the three-story Civic Cultural Hall building Dickson had called from, according to news reports from Japan and Dickson's sister, Shelley Fredrickson.

The city of about 23,000 is thought to have lost one out of every 10 residents to the tsunami. The New York Times reported Tuesday the official death toll at 775 people, with more than 1,700 missing. The wreckage includes sheared-off, 30-foot trees.

The 26-year-old Dickson was in Takata to teach English to Japanese children in elementary and junior high. He rotated between 16 schools as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, his sister said in an interview Tuesday.

Dickson graduated from Service High School in 2002 and the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2009, earning the honor of summa cum laude from both schools.

He and his two siblings -- Fredrickson and brother, Ian -- are close, she said. Monty and Ian's father died when they were in elementary school, and their mother passed away when they were in high school. Monty and Ian came to live with Fredrickson, 34 at the time, when they were 16 and 17 respectively, she said.

" 'If anything happens, you're taking care of the babies,' " Fredrickson recalled her mother saying years earlier.

Dickson worked hard at school to make his mother proud before her death, and he continued after she died, Fredrickson said. He eventually attended the University of Southern California, UAA and Hokkaido and Nagoya universities in Japan, she said.

An avid cyclist, Dickson commuted by bike everywhere he lived, Fredrickson said. He was starting to get into triathlons shortly before heading to Japan to live and teach in 2009, she said.

"IT'S JUST GONE"

Dickson's family continues to hold out hope that he will be found alive. Still, Fredrickson said some of the news has been discouraging.

"If he was in the city hall building, it's not a good report," she said. "It's a three-story building, and the water reached the third level."

For the first few days, Fredrickson and her other brother tried to go about their daily lives while searching for information.

Dickson's girlfriend Naoko, a native of Japan, biked into town as the water was receding, Fredrickson said. She couldn't find Dickson or any of his belongings -- even his apartment building was destroyed.

"It's just gone," Fredrickson said.

Fredrickson's mother-in-law, Gloria Shriver, contacted Sen. Lisa Murkowski's office in Washington, D.C., and then Rep. Don Young. Young's staff contacted U.S. officials in Japan, who put Dickson on a higher priority list and went looking for the teacher.

Those searchers, from the U.S. Consulate General in Sapporo, set out looking for Dickson with an Air Force convoy. They looked through the city's morgues, several of the shelters that sprung up, and talked to people, showing Dickson's picture throughout the city.

Many of the residents remembered Dickson -- whom they called "Monty-san" -- but they had not seen him recently, according to an email sent to Fredrickson from the U.S. Consulate.

Dickson would have stood out as a "tall, white, bald guy," Fredrickson said.

So far, there have been no eyewitness accounts of the tsunami hitting the building Dickson was in, but the team looking for him heard that water had reached the top of the building, Fredrickson said.

According to a report from regional government officials in Japan, Dickson gathered with staff at the Board of Education Office on the building's third floor following the earthquake.

"After that, the tsunami hit the building and the people on the third floor were swept away," according to division chief's report on Dickson's whereabouts.

Fredrickson was at work when she heard that news, and she hasn't been back.

"We've been on Japan time ever since," Fredrickson said. "We've been sleeping and showering before Japan wakes up, and then we get right back to the computers again. And the phone rings constantly."

'A YOUNG MAN WHO WORKED REALLY HARD'

Fredrickson and her brother Ian are posting updates and receiving information through Dickson's Facebook page.

The family is still in contact with members of Alaska's congressional delegation, and sending emails to other teachers in the Japan Exchange and Teaching program, Shriver said. Dickson's college adviser at UAA, Hiroko Harada, has also been helpful, Fredrickson and Shriver said.

Tuesday afternoon, the two women sat in Shriver's living room. A tone on Shriver's phone indicated she'd just gotten an email.

"Excuse me," Shriver said, checking the phone. "I've been watching my email pretty close."

Later, Fredrickson's phone rang.

"It's MSNBC," she said, setting the phone back down.

Fredrickson said she had some reservations about talking to news media. For one thing, it seemed like some of the news outlets she's talked to just wanted another sad story, she said.

Fredrickson wants people to know about her brother's accomplishments, not just the fact that he's missing.

"You know, I thought here's a young man who worked really hard and knew what he wanted, and helped other people, whether it's teaching English to some elderly man in Japan, or tutoring at UAA," she said. "I'll talk about him as much as I can."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.


By CASEY GROVE
casey.grove@adn.com