Missoulians were likely bellied up to a barstool or sitting down to watch Letterman when the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan two weeks ago. With the closest potential fallout still hundreds of miles away on the West Coast, there seemed little connection between Montana and the tragedy unfolding halfway around the globe.

Yet some locals found themselves glued to news coverage early on March 11 for more than curiosity's sake. For Tom McGrath, 61, the thready information filtering out of Japan provided his only link to his son Brian, a Hellgate High and University of Montana graduate working as an English teacher in the small village of Katashina. Nearly seven hours passed before McGrath received a phone call from Brian confirming that he was alive and well.

"It was really stressful," McGrath says. "We didn't know exactly what area got hit hardest."

Elsewhere in Missoula, Rick Heilman was "absolutely stunned" by images of the quake-triggered tsunami and explosions at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant. Eventually he realized that Missoula native Brandon Palmer, a close friend, was trapped in the middle of it all. Palmer, too, is a Hellgate grad and English teacher, living within 50 miles of the Fukushima contamination zone.

"All of a sudden we're thinking about Brandon, and on Monday morning I woke up and had this vision that I had to get Brandon and his family out," Heilman says.

After obsessing over the safety of Palmer and his young family (Palmer has two sons, a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old), Heilman took action. What started as a simple Facebook group blossomed into a full-blown grassroots fundraising initiative through Missoula Federal Credit Union. So far Heilman says he's raised $1,100, helping to cover emergency passports and airfare.

"We also want to be able to cushion them when they get here, so they can de-stress from this," Heilman says. "It's all we can do."

Palmer is expected home late this week, but Heilman says the fundraising isn't over. Heilman plans to direct money to the relief effort in Japan and hopefully hold a local benefit event.

As for Brian McGrath—contacted by the Indy this week—he'd hoped to volunteer over spring break, but says devastated areas are currently off-limits. He plans to lend a hand in his village of 5,000, which recently accepted 1,000 evacuees from Fukushima.

"It is really inspirational for me to witness even the smaller communities offering their help," McGrath says. "My respect for the Japanese people has grown deeply since the disaster."

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