WASHINGTON - The two-word e-mail a few hours after the Japanese earthquake let U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum know for sure her son was safe.

"I'm OK," he wrote as soon as he had a cellphone signal.

It would still be several days before McCollum could talk with her son, Sean McCollum, 30, who has lived in Japan for five years.

"This became very personal what happened to Japan," McCollum said on Thursday. "There's just a tremendous amount of sadness and loss for a country that's very close to my family's heart."

Sean McCollum, who lives with his wife in Gotemba, a city southwest of Tokyo near the base of Mount Fuji, was fortunate -- his close family wasn't among the thousands killed in the tragedy. But he, like nearly everyone in Japan, knows many people who are missing or dead in the aftermath of the March 11 quake and tsunami.

The North St. Paul native first visited Japan in 1999 to study abroad as a University of Minnesota undergrad. After finishing his master's degree at St. Cloud State, he returned to teach English at Japan's Nihon University.

Sean McCollum was preparing for a dinner party with his wife when the quake struck. "We tried our best to get outside," he said in a phone interview Thursday from Japan. "It was shaking for what felt like five minutes, though it was only about 30 to 40 seconds. Our power instantly went out throughout the whole area. Everything just got very quiet."

McCollum lives far enough from the epicenter that the damage wasn't too great. But as an exchange student, he visited villages in northern Japan that were destroyed by the tsunami. "A fishing town I visited, they said this wall will protect us from the biggest tsunami possible," McCollum said. "The tsunami wiped out the wall, wiped out the town. It's just unbelievable. We had to turn off the TV."

People are trying to pick up the pieces and resume their lives, he said, but it's been difficult with rolling blackouts and other disruptions. The hundreds of aftershocks don't help, either. McCollum said when an earthquake emergency broadcast signal plays on TV, people instinctively stand up, even if they don't feel a quake.

Betty McCollum has talked to her son sporadically since March 11. She plans to ship him a box of batteries and some board games for his nieces and nephews to play when the power is off.

He said he intends to help with recovery efforts, but said it's too hectic for people to travel to the areas hardest hit. "My friends up there say, 'Yeah, we really need the help, but you can't stay in our apartment because we've got five people in an apartment with no electricity, nowhere to sleep, and no plumbing,'" he said.

He added that he has no intention of leaving the country anytime soon. "With all that's happening right now, I don't think I could leave," he said. "I feel it'd be kind of disrespectful to turn my back and leave."

Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723