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Spokane

Man Has Knack For Finding Disaster

Sat., Jan. 21, 1995

It may seem like Max Wurzburg is living under a cloud lately, but the Spokane native figures he’s lucky to be alive.

Wurzburg said he watched four people die in a traffic accident in Thailand last month, and then fled a nightclub fire that killed four more people the same evening.

He awoke in terror to Japan’s violent earthquake, and in its aftermath was reduced to fighting off hunger and cold inside his torn apartment in Takarazuka.

In spite of all this, the 23-year-old English teacher remains upbeat, an example of the resilience of people caught in disaster.

“I feel I’m lucky not to be hurt. You’ve got to look at it that way,” he said by telephone from Japan this week.

The earthquake leveled many of the apartments in his neighborhood and cut off water and natural gas lines.

Electrical power and telephone service kept working, Wurzburg said. He’s been able to keep warm with a small space heater and talk to his family in Spokane.

Wurzburg left for Japan in August after graduating from Washington State University last spring. He is also a graduate of Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane.

He was hired by the Japanese government to teach English at a high school in Takarazuka, midway between Kobe and Osaka in the zone of destruction. It was not clear at the end of the week whether Wurzburg would continue teaching classes under his contract with the Japanese.

Wurzburg said his encounters with death and destruction began on a trip to Thailand three weeks ago during a break in classes. He and two other Americans were visiting a scenic island south of Bangkok.

On New Year’s Eve, they paid a local resident to drive them to a nightclub in a nearby town. As the pickup slowed going up a hill, it was passed by a moped with two people on board. Another moped carrying three people appeared at the top of the hill. The two mopeds collided in front of the pickup. Bodies and vehicle parts flew in all directions. The pickup couldn’t avoid hitting two of the people, Wurzburg said.

The driver and the passengers in the truck were not hurt. When Wurzburg and his buddies jumped out to help the victims, the driver of the pickup sped off.

An ambulance and another truck arrived about 45 minutes later. The ambulance took one victim, leaving behind two others who were still alive and seriously hurt.

Wurzburg said he later learned the only survivor was the woman who was taken away by ambulance. “It was out of my control,” he said. “It was a very strange experience.”

“It was pretty amazing because the medical care was pretty much nonexistent,” he said.

After the accident, Wurzburg and his friends continued on foot to the nightclub, even though they weren’t in much of a party mood when midnight arrived.

No sooner had they ordered a beer than someone on the dance floor ignited fireworks. The charge touched off flames in the thatched roof of the open-air club.

Wurzburg and his friends escaped. Not everyone was so fortunate. Four people were crushed and burned when the fiery roof collapsed, Wurzburg said.

Shaken but unharmed, he returned to classes Jan. 9.

Then last Monday, the earthquake jolted him from his sleep before dawn. Pieces of the ceiling fell onto his face. He pushed the debris aside and grabbed a bed post.

The earthquake, he said, “is something so frightening it takes your breath away. You are just overwhelmed. “You could hear screams, these terrible screams coming from people’s homes, and explosions from power lines and the gas in people’s homes exploding.”

Wurzburg said he was lucky because the walls and roof of his apartment remained standing. There are gaping holes in the walls and the doors don’t close. He gathered debris to block the winter air from the living room.

By Friday, Wurzburg had arranged for a room at a hotel in Osaka, and was awaiting word from school officials about the start of classes, said his mother, Jan Wurzburg.

“It’s OK. I’m alive,” he said. “It could be a lot worse.”


 

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