“Where were you when the earthquake struck on 2:47 PM, March 11th, 2011?”
This is the kind of question I expect I will be asked, quite often, for the remainder of my life. To be honest, I haven’t fully come to grips with everything that has happened but I know a lot of people are concerned about Japan and myself and I want to get this into writing while it’s still fresh in my memory, although I don’t think this experience will ever be forgotten.
Where was I? I was in the washroom at work.
I’ve lived in Japan for six years and experienced many quakes. So many that they don’t frighten me. If I’m in bed when one occurs I just stay there. If I’m at my desk I don’t bother to get up. This one was different.
As soon as it started, I knew. This one was big and I needed to be somewhere other than the place I was. I walked out of the washroom and out the side exit of the building and stood right in the middle of the parking lot. I was the first person out of the building and watched the power lines swing back and forth. It didn’t stop. The quake got bigger and I could see the cars in the parking lot rocking back and forth on their suspensions. At that time everyone else was exiting the building at a sprint and the noise coming from inside was tremendous. Metal doors bending and slamming against their runners, things toppling from shelves. I could hear it all from the parking lot as the earth moved up and down. We could see the foundation of the building moving against the asphalt of the parking lot breaking chunks off.
It lasted forever.
In reality it was something like 5 minutes, but you lose all sense of time when something of this magnitude is occurring. Once I was sure the shaking was done I pulled out my cellphone and tried to contact my wife but could not get through. I tried again. Nope. I tried to send a mail but it failed. Not too surprising considering what had just happened. After it remained calm for a minute or so we ventured back into the building and I headed for my desk, but as I rounded the corner and looked in that direction I could not recognize it. The shelves that I have on my desk were completely empty and my monitor had toppled over and the keyboard and mouse were dangling in the air. It was then that the enormity of what had transpired hit me. This was big.
I thought about my house a prefecture away and how it wasn’t the newest building I’ve ever lived in and wondered if it was even still standing. I thought about Gai-Gun Jr. and the daycare she attends which is located on the 5th floor of a recently renovated building. I tried calling again and could not get through.
Once everyone had a chance to take in what had become of the workplace each of us set about picking up the things that had once been part of his/her desk, tried to determine if the computers worked, etc. Then an aftershock hit. Once again we left the building. Coming in that second time the entire staff assembled downstairs for a meeting. We were in the middle of determining a plan of action when the building started shaking again. We left again and again watched the asphalt on the corner of the building turning into a black dust and blowing away.
Everyone had his or her cellphone out and was trying to connect to loved ones but failing each time. Permission was given for everyone to return home to check on their houses and families but, checking the status of things online I read that highways were effectively shut down immediately. Going home was possible, but stop-lights were out along the local roads and reports of traffic accidents were rising.
I should say here that I had no idea the scope of this thing, where it was located, or what damage it had caused. Only that I had experienced something I had thought about several times in the past and now was living through. More failed attempts at calling home. While waiting for something to work or for someone to contact me I set about putting things somewhat back in order on my desk. Every gundam were on the desk or floor and most were in pieces. The ones that hadn’t had something glued on them were easy enough to put back together but parts had snapped off some of those which had been glued. I wasn’t saddened. I was only putting them back in place because it gave me something to physically do while I waited. Amazingly the internet still worked and a mail came up on my PC from the wife saying everyone was fine. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was at this time that a co-worker mentioned the tsunami. Each time there is an earthquake in Japan there is a warning on the TV followed by the tsunami danger assessment and it is usually ‘none’.
Not this time. There was a tsunami on the way and it was big. But I couldn’t give it my full attention because I was needed in the warehouse to pick up the hundreds of fallen items. I spent about 2 hours putting boxes of gunpla back on the shelves and then returned to my desk to hear my co-workers talking about the tsunami. One of them mentioned that a village in Miyagi prefecture was considered not to exist any more. Completely wiped out.
I tried contacting my wife again, out of concern for her parents who live on one of Japan’s many islands. I still couldn’t get through to my wife by phone or text message. So I checked facebook. I left a simple message on her wall.
“I can’t contact you by phone, the highways are closed so I can’t come home. I am needed at work tomorrow.”
A friend from work offered to let me crash at his place and I gladly took him up on the offer. We got back to his place after 6pm and turned on the TV. It didn’t work. An antenna somewhere was knocked out and no signal was getting through. I was still in the dark about what was happening a few hundred kilometers north of where I was. Using my iphone to check out CNN I watched the tsunami that everyone talked about wipe out a town. That’s when the enormity of what Japan had experienced hit me. Whole cities washed away.
The image of a wave of water sweeping buildings away, many of which are on fire, is one that will be with me forever. But I should tell everyone, that ‘live’ video of the tsunami striking is nothing compared to the videos that are appearing on television here, most of them taken from people who only minutes before fled from one of those buildings.
I thought about my mom. Being a mother, of course she is a bit of a worrier for her children. She has a son who lives in Japan but she doesn’t know exactly where he’s located or what he is close to. I looked at that video again and thought about how my mom must be feeling watching it and, I admit, I choked up. Still unable to call anyone I used the Iphone to get onto facebook and then noticed the string of messages sent to me and a bunch of posts from friends around Japan. ASM felt it in Osaka. A friend who lived in Tokyo had to walk 30 km home when the train stopped. Everyone has a story and we’re lucky ours are boring compared to those who lived in a house in Miyagi who have to relate what happened to their life’s work.
Exhausted, I went to sleep. I was awakened twice in the night by massive aftershocks, but was just too exhausted to bother getting up. They were small compared to the 9.0 I had felt only hours before.
The next day my coworker and I headed to work but stopped somewhere to pick up something to eat first. Well, tried to pick up something. Convenience store shelves were bare as people were stocking up just in case, and even restaurants like McDonald’s were closed. Lines of cars waiting to get gas stopped traffic. Why is everyone needing gas?, I thought.
We spent the day picking up items, checking for damage, and then returning them to the shelves or putting them in a designated pile if they were broken in some way. Aftershocks continued but most people just took them in stride. We have experienced them almost non-stop since 3pm, Friday, March 11th. Work finished for the day but we still weren’t done. We would need to work Sunday to get everything up and ready for monday. The highways were still closed so I tried calling home again but could not get through. I left a message on my wife’s facebook, “The highways are still closed, I still cannot get through to you on the cell network and I have to work again tomorrow. I miss you guys.”
Back to my friend’s place where the television was now working. The images on the television are amazing and horrifying and I am not a good enough writer to convey the emotions these images conjure up. People standing on the top of a mall film the entire parking lot get washed away, cars tumbling over each other and bobbing up and down like toys in the bath. Boats being stranded several kilometers inland from the harbor they were just in. An entire area of rubble surrounds the lone building that survived, a hospital. People on the roof of the hospital are waving makeshift flags to get the attention of the planes and helicopters. People are writing SOS on tops of buildings followed by a number, indicating how many people are trapped in the building. A bus rests on top of a three story building. Another bus is trying to flee the wave. It drives up the hill as as the water comes around the corner and actually pushes the rear of the bus sideways but the bus manages to get away. The death toll the news casts give is relatively low, but then you realize that is because no one has been able to contact most of the people who were in the path of that wall of water. Half the population of an entire village is unaccounted for. 10,000 people and no one knows where they are. On top of all that, there is an explosion at a Nuclear Power Plant a couple of hundred kilometers away and a possible meltdown is occurring. My wife gets through to me her cellphone and I am able to speak with her and my daughter. My daughter is 3 1/2 and can talk your ear off but she only says two short things.
“There was an earthquake. It was scary.”
I stay up until about 1 AM, lying on the floor of my friend’s house, watching the same images over and over again but I can’t turn them off. Mails from my mom start popping up on my iphone. At least that one gets through, most of the time anyways. More aftershocks/quakes during the night but I fall right back asleep.
I was determined to get home today. With the highway still closed it meant I had to take the back roads. The life in this area has returned to normal somewhat, except for gas. There is no gas. I was driving home and each gas station I passed was roped off or had cars in place to block people coming in. Why is there no gas? Upon returning home I sit down next to my daughter who is eating a snack. She seems in good spirits, however, when I turn on the TV and the news comes up again, her eyes become moist as she looks at the TV. She says two things. “There was an earthquake. It was scary.” I turn off the television and we went for a walk. I wanted to buy some water to take to work but there is no water in the stores near my house. Things are starting to get a little too crazy.
With no gas anywhere I will be taking the train to work in the morning making my commute an extra hour each way. But I guess I am lucky. I will be going back to my normal routine while others not so far from here will be picking through rubble looking for anything of theirs that might have survived.
I want to say thanks to everyone who contacted me through facebook or this site and offered words of encouragement. It’s nice to know people are thinking about you. I will be thinking a lot about thousands of people who aren’t as lucky as I am.
There was an earthquake. It was scary.