A 16-year-old who lost his home in Japan's devastating tsunami now knows that one prized possession survived: a soccer ball that made it all the way to Alaska.
Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say the ball 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 an Alaskan island, and his wife, who is Japanese, talked with its owner, Misaki Murakami, over the phone over the weekend. They plan to send the ball back to him soon.
Kyodo News agency says Murakami, from the devastated town of Rikuzentakata, is surprised and thankful the ball has been found some 5,100 miles away.
"I have no doubt it is mine," Murakami told Kyodo. 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 on it, had been given to him in 2005, when Murakami was in third grade, as a good-bye gift when he transferred to another school.
Debris from the tsunami initially formed a thick mass in the ocean of Japan's northeastern coast and has since spread out across the Pacific. In February, experts with NOAA said much of the debris would to reach the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Washington and Oregon between March 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 an unmanned Japanese fishing boat in the Gulf of Alaska that had been drifting across the ocean since last year's tsunami. Authorities had deemed the ship it a hazard to shipping and to the coastline.
David Baxter, a radar technician from Kasilof, Alaska, found Murakami's ball while beachcombing with a friend in March on Middleton Island, 70 miles south of the Alaskan mainland.
"When I first saw the soccer ball I was excited to see it and I thought it was possible it came from the tsunami zone," Baxter said in an email to The Associated Press. He also found a volleyball that appears to be from Japan, but its owner has not been found.
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.
The vice principal at Murakami's high school in northeastern Japan said he was absent Monday with the flu.