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Y.C. father, son back home after experiencing disaster
Chance Perez, 14, had been playing arcade games with a couple of young karate champs from San Diego on Friday when a claw crane beside him suddenly began to move on its own.
He pulled out his mobile phone and started to shoot video as other games and objects in his field of vision began to shudder.
The River Valley High School freshman had arrived in Tokyo with his father three days earlier, and expected to participate in a karate tournament as one of only three non-Japanese black belts.
But thoughts of the tournament would soon become irrelevant, as the novelty of experiencing an earthquake quickly gave way to the reality of its force.
Down on the first floor of the shopping complex, Chance's father was beginning to realize that the quake might not all be fun and games.
"All of the sudden you see stuff falling of the shelves and off counters," said Carlos Perez.
The attitudes of shoppers had been nonchalant for the first 45 seconds, he said. "But then you see everybody leave in a hurry, and you think, 'well, they live here. Maybe we should start thinking about getting out too.'"
On Monday afternoon, Carlos Perez and his son — surrounded by four of his five sisters — relaxed together in their Yuba City house.
Communication from Japan had been scarce during those three days between the magnitude 9 quake, subsequent tsunami and nuclear power plant disasters, and the guys' return home on Sunday. The uncertainty left Carlos Perez's wife and daughters tense.
"I was really worried between the times that we heard from them," said daughter Kayla Perez, 18. "So much stuff was happening in the news."
Carlos and Chance Perez got their first real glimpse of that stuff as they walked away from the mall.
Nearly all merchants in the mall and surrounding area had closed their shops in a matter of minutes, said Carlos Perez. This signaled a level of seriousness about the earthquake, he said.
Then they noticed a large crowd gathered in front of a shop window where a small television was turned to the news.
"Oh my God," was the first thing they uttered upon watching the fast-moving wave taking out cars, trucks and buildings. The crowd was hushed as they watched.
"They almost looked like Monopoly houses," Chance said of the footage. "It looked like a hand had just come down." Chance swept his hand across his body to indicate the ease with which the water swept the landscape.
When Tokyo's trains began to run again seven hours later, the father and son got on board an empty car headed east toward their hotel. In the opposite direction, trains were packed.
The two had already enjoyed a few days of sightseeing. Chance had even worked out at the karate studio he had been set to compete in. They stayed indoors on Saturday and kept an eye on the news.
"It was just kind of ironic," said Chance on Monday, recalling his first days in Japan when he had said a prayer for safety at an ancient Shinto temple, and completed a science homework assignment about nuclear reactivity and fusion.
He thought about these things, he said, as events unfolded after the quake.
Talk about karate, he said Monday, would not be appropriate in light of what has happened.
"Our thoughts and prayers really should be with the people in Japan," he said.
Alex Miladi, Chance's karate instructor, or "sensei," said this level of seriousness from his student doesn't surprise him.
He has trained Chance for the past seven years.
"He has a lovely personality," Miladi said. "And when you spend so much time with a kid, you get emotionally attached.
He was worried, he said, along with the rest of the Perez family during the last several days.
"We were all praying very hard," he said.
The decision to leave Japan a couple of days early was not a hard one for Carlos Perez.
Potential danger from damaged nuclear power plants in Fukushima — and the mass exodus that could occur as a result — convinced him to seek transportation home as soon as possible.
They flew out of Haneda Airport, south of the city, instead of Narita, the main airport. And for a while, it looked like getting a flight home was a longshot.
"Nothing's guaranteed till you're on a plane and up in the air," said Carlos Perez.
An effusive Facebook notice from Chance let his friends and family back home know when he touched ground in the United States.
Lisa Perez and her five daughters rode in the family's Suburban to Sacramento Airport late Sunday to retrieve the rest of their family. They waved posters they'd made to welcome Chance and Carlos.
Both said they would like very much to return to Japan, whose people and culture impressed them a great deal.
Chance may get an opportunity to do so soon. He was invited to train for a month in Tokyo during the summer.
In the meantime, he said he would like to join or initiate a fundraising effort for the people of Japan.
"We need to express our condolences to those who lost loved ones," he said.
CONTACT reporter Nancy Pasternack at 749-4712.