Paul Salisbury still lives with the sight of cars perched on roofs of buildings and the smell of rotting human flesh from his time in Japan in the aftermath of its triple tragedy — an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown.
The multilingual senior research officer, who has been based in Japan for the past eight years, was on a holiday in Sydney in early March 2011 when the Australian Embassy called and asked if he would go direct to the disaster zone to track lost foreign nationals.
Mr Salisbury, 38, who grew up in Wentworth Falls, was announced in the Australia Day 2013 Honours List. He has been honoured for service to the international community following the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan on March 11, 2011 and will be awarded the medal (OAM) of the Order of Australia in Canberra by the Governor General Quentin Bryce.
With other Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade staff he volunteered to travel to the port city Sendai in northeastern Japan, the closest major city to the epicentre where 200 to 300 bodies were found along the waterline. Over 10 days he helped locate more than 100 Australian citizens and assisted Australian Search and Rescue teams co-ordinate with Japanese emergency services to ensure there was enough food, water, petrol and other supplies, often working in snow on sites without electricity, gas or running water.
Because of his many Asian and European languages he was also able to keep rescuers and international visitors alike informed as news trickled out about the danger from the nuclear meltdown.
More than 20,000 people died in the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami. The massive logistical job “was very challenging” he told the Gazette on the phone from Tokyo on Australia Day.
“They called it a triple disaster, the earthquake (8.9-magnitude) destroyed so much, then they had the worst tsunami ever and then a nuclear meltdown, each of these in itself would have been a major crisis but Japan got all three.
“One of my jobs was to make sure the Australian, Japanese and U.S rescue teams had accurate information.
It was also about trying to locate Australians and other Commonwealth citizens and evacuate them.
“We were using council records, but in one of the worst affected areas the entire council building had washed away. I drove out to these places, checked notice boards. It was both psychologically and physically demanding and there were about 1000 aftershocks in that time, we couldn’t sleep. I lost track of the days.”
Mr Salisbury said some of the towns were “a wasteland, a war zone and the rotting smell you can’t escape that”.
A former Wentworth Falls Public School and Katoomba High student, he studied law at Sydney University on a scholarship, winning the University Medal. But he said it was his early childhood years playing in the bush in the Mountains that prepared him for coping in a crisis.
“I basically grew up in the bush, I think that had a lot to play in terms of being able to deal with such a challenging situation. I think in small communities people are used to helping each other out.”
Mr Salisbury said he was surprised to receive the recognition and hoped it would draw attention to the thousands of Japanese people still missing, presumed washed out to sea and “the plight of those still suffering,” — victims the Australian Embassy still helped today.
“The Japanese people who I worked with were so incredible in the face of such disaster and tragedy.
“ It was humbling. They had lost loved ones and had nowhere to go ... just being able to work with these people, it was life transforming.”
Mum, Anne Salisbury, told the Gazette she recently bought a family memorial brick at the primary school’s 125th anniversary and wanted to update her son’s status on it.
“I need to ring and see if we can put OAM at the end,” she said laughing.
“Geoff and I are just run of the mill people and we’re so proud of him.”