TOKYO -- A teenager who lost his home in Japan's devastating tsunami now knows that one prized possession survived: a soccer ball that drifted all the way to Alaska.
Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the ball with the youngster's name inscribed on it is one of the first pieces of debris from last year's tsunami to wash up on the other side of the Pacific.
A man found the ball while beachcombing on Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska. A co-worker's wife, who is Japanese, talked with its owner, 16-year-old Misaki Murakami, by phone over the weekend. They plan to send the ball back to him soon.
Murakami, from the town of Rikuzentakata, is surprised and thankful the soccer ball has been found more than 3,000 miles away.
"It was a big surprise. I've never imagined that my ball has reached Alaska," Murakami told public broadcaster NHK. "I've lost everything in the tsunami, so I'm delighted. I really want to say thank you for finding the ball."
He was particularly glad because all furniture and sentimental items in his home had been washed away in the March 11, 2011, tsunami, which devastated a long stretch of Japan's northeastern coast and killed about 19,000 people.
The ball, which also had messages of encouragement written on it, was given to him in 2005, when Murakami was in third grade, as a goodbye gift when he transferred to another school.
Debris from the tsunami initially formed a thick mass in the ocean off Japan's northeastern coast and has since spread out across the Pacific. In February, NOAA said currents would carry much of the debris to the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Washington and Oregon in 2013 and 2014, though they noted that some of it could arrive this year.
Earlier this month, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter fired on and sank a fishing boat in the Gulf of Alaska that had drifted from Japan after the tsunami. Authorities had deemed the ship a hazard to shipping and to the coastline.
David Baxter, a technician from Kasilof who works at the radar site on the remote island, 70 miles south of the Alaska mainland, told the Anchorage Daily News that the ball was found on March 15 by a co-worker who was beachcombing with him. Previous reports suggested that Baxter was the first to find the ball.
"He handed the ball to me and then I took the initiative to find out what it said from my wife," Baxter said.
Baxter's wife, Yumi, reached Murakami with help from a Japanese reporter. Murakami expressed his gratitude to the couple for "for wanting to take the time to even try to find him," David Baxter said.
The couple plans to visit Japan in May but do not plan to deliver the ball directly to Murakami. They are somewhat reluctant to visit him because they don't want to create too much of a commotion, Baxter said.
A volleyball with Japanese writing was found on March 30 by another co-worker beachcombing on Middleton Island, Baxter told the Daily News. "He gave it to me when we met back at the quarters."
NHK reported Monday that its owner was also found -- Shiori Sato, 19, from another city hit by the tsunami.
The ball had her first name on it, and a viewer called in to the broadcaster to suggest contacting Sato.
"Good heavens!" she told NHK. "I want to say (to the ball) 'Welcome back!' I think it's a miracle."
Baxter told the Daily News that there has been a lot of debris along the coast of Middleton Island recently.
"Most of can't be identified as from Japan except some fishing floats and various containers," he said. "Lots of building insulation pieces that I suspect are from the tsunami zone."
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi and Daily News reporter Mike Dunham contributed to this report.
By MALCOLM FOSTER