I was in my office just outside of Tokyo when the quake hit Friday afternoon.My office is on the 9th floor of a 10-storey building. It’s about 20 years old and was built – as most Japanese high-rises are – with earthquakes in mind. The earthquake-proofing here consists of a series of supports that extend as deeply into the ground as the building itself rises into the sky. That day they would be put to the test.
Earthquakes are extremely common in Japan. Small earthquakes, that is.
Like most quakes, this one began as small shakes. On the 9th floor, tremors typically recede in a few seconds and are followed by slight swaying as the building’s anti-quake mechanism allows the building to wobble back and forth, rather than bend and – heaven forbid – break. But this time was different.
The shaking began – noticeably stronger than usual. This prompted many of us to walk to our doorways and peep out into the hall. No one was running down the stairs so we guessed we were ok. Without warning the shaking turned violent. Enormously heavy filing cabinets rocked back and forth. Bookshelves were emptied in a second. My clock smashed against the floor. I braced myself in the doorframe to avoid falling down.
As quickly as it had begun, the worst of the swaying subsided and my now ashen-faced colleagues and I agreed that we should get outside immediately. We were weak-in-the-knees and a bit stunned. We barely noticed that the broken water pipes in the ceiling were dripping on us as we began to hurry downstairs. We had let our books fall where they may. Thankfully the bricks hadn’t.
We reached the ground floor and congregated in groups far enough from the building to feel safe from any debris that might fall. We were met by the sounds of sirens in all directions – later, the burning smell and wafts of black smoke in the distance. We were all alive and physically unharmed.
Someone was already watching TV on his cell phone. “That was a 7!” He exclaimed, referring to the value of the quake on the Japanese Scale.
The Japan Scale measures the actual amount of shaking in a given region rather than overall strength of the quake. The overall strength in this case was a magnitude 9.0 on the Richter Scale. This had been the fourth worst quake in the history of the world, right behind the Great Sumatra earthquake of 2004 that unleashed its infamous tsunami.
I was thinking to myself, “So that’s what a 7 feels like”, when someone repeated, “That was a 7 in Miyagi.”
Miyagi rang in my ears and I went white. Miyagi Prefecture is 300 km north. My wife works near our home 150 km north of where I was. I frantically began dialing from my cell. No connection. I tried email and short mail. No response. I couldn’t tell if my messages had gone through or not. This was to be my darkest hour.
Meanwhile we were told that we were still too close to the building and were asked to move quickly to the playing field. Repeated tries on the phone. Still nothing.
Mostly staff and faculty, about 500 of us congregated on the field. It is the end of the academic year and only a few students were on campus. One of the larger aftershocks hits and I watched as 500 did a simultaneous two-step to avoid falling. The aftershocks continued constantly, as did my attempts on the phone. Everyone looked deeply concerned, but we were glad we were no longer nine stories up.
A ray of hope
I couldn’t wait around any longer. It had been an hour-and-a-half since the quake hit and I still had not heard anything from my wife. I should get my things from the office and get moving. A security guard blocked my way. Just as he was telling me that the building had not been declared safe, a ray of hope appeared in the form of my vibrating pocket – my wife’s message had made it through the network congestion.
In fact, two messages had piggy-backed their way through the system. The first was checking on my safety. The second one was a response to my “are you ok” message. It said, “Not really, but I am still alive.” I know my wife well enough to assume she has been shaken up, but not injured. To be on the safe side, I sent a confirmation message. I knew the response would be slow to arrive, so I started heading for home. I left the office at around 6:00 pm.
The heart of darkness
The tracks were torn up in many spots and all train lines had been halted. I was fortunate to have my car at the office that day. I knew the highway would be jammed but I didn’t know that my hour-and-a-half drive home was about to become an 8-hour ordeal.
The highways were all closed. People were fleeing the Metropolis to check on their loved ones further north. The side roads remained bumper-to-bumper as we all crawled along at a snail’s pace through the night.
I was hungry and had planned to stop at a convenience store for a light dinner, but now there were no stores. Beyond the endless row of red and white lights fore and aft, all was black. I hadn’t anticipated blackouts. After all, even with the pipes leaking overhead, I had left the office with the lights on and the computer running.
So there were no shops open and no traffic lights to facilitate the northward exodus. It was becoming dark in the figurative sense too. I began to understand how Capt. Willard must have felt on his way up the Mekong.
Besides the blackouts, I began to see the first signs of the devastation that lay further ahead. First there were cracks in the road. They were stained with white powder where the asphalt had ground against itself, turning to fine white sand. Later the cracks were bigger where the paving had been pulled apart and there were ridges where the ground had been forced upwards. The bridges no longer met the solid ground as they had before. Each began with a shocking bump. Of course not all of them were still standing.
I came to Ishioka, a small city in Ibaraki Prefecture surrounded by rice fields. The bridge was out and we were forced to detour through the town. Crushed brick and rock lined the roads. Wide fissures in the asphalt here, sinkholes there.
Then there were the people. Salarymen who had ridden trains their whole lives were tiredly walking through the night to get home. Couples and coworkers were still wearing safety helmets issued at their offices as they forged onwards in the dark.
I got home at 2:00 am. It was cold and the sky was clear, thousands of stars. My house was standing, but not all in my city were as lucky. The Korean restaurant on the corner was now thrown onto the sidewalk. Tombstones littered their graveyards.
I pulled into the driveway. I thought all was silent except for my car cooling off from its 8-hour trek. Then I heard the neighbour’s car engine. I could see the family in the car. I asked [my neighbor] if everyone was ok. She said they were all safe but the inside of their house was too ruined to find a place to sleep. At least the car had heat.
I fumbled for my key in the dark and unlocked my front door. In the complete black of the entrance way I felt around inside a cupboard for a small flashlight. I got my hands on it and begin to explore the house.
I could see that the medicine cabinets had been opened. Their contents were thrown into the sinks. At first, I didn’t know what I was looking at on the kitchen floor. I realized after a while that the crushed silver box was the microwave oven, upside down and broken.
For the most part, the anti-quake cupboards had done their job. Their magic latches had held themselves closed so only a few of our dishes were broken. The new TV is still standing in the living room.
I headed upstairs, but I couldn’t enter the office. There was no place to stand; every inch of floor space was littered with books, CDs, and paper. I see the smashed picture frames on the floor and realize I am standing in broken class. This is a Japanese house so I had removed my shoes. The rest of the exploration would have to wait till daylight.
I should go find my wife now.
To city hall
I was back on side roads heading north again. The sporty wheels of my Cooper S hit the cracks and ridges hard but I continued through the darkness.
My wife is a city employee and had to work through the night at the local town hall. I arrived and pulled open the “automatic” doors by hand. I pulled them closed behind me to keep the night air off the newly homeless who had wrapped themselves in blankets and were lying on the floor the entire length of the front counter.
I asked someone where Yuko was. With handheld radios they called around. They reported back to me that she was on the fifth floor.
I was guided upstairs where I passed the mayor in the hallway. I asked him if everyone is ok and he saids yes. I guess he was referring to his staff.
I was directed to a large room where city employees were meeting to discuss what they would do if things got any worse. “Here you are”, my guide says, gesturing towards a middle-aged man.
“Not Yukio [last name removed],” I exclaimed. “Yuko [last name removed].” I’m directed back downstairs.
Finally I found her huddled under a blanket. She was still on duty, but resting and trying to nap. She had been serving water, tea, crackers, and cold rice to the stranded and homeless all night long. She was tired, but safe. Our eyes widened and we made a beeline for each other. She told me how she had thought she was going to die during the quake. Tears welled up and we embraced.
She had done the wise thing by getting under her desk when everything in her office was being tossed about. She thinks if she hadn’t, she would have died or been injured. Some of her colleagues hadn’t been as wise and now had the head injuries to prove it.
All the prime floor space was already occupied, so I went back to the car to sleep. Yuko went back to her corner. It was 3 am.
The next day
The next morning, I awoke to find myself in the morning sun, reclined behind the wheel of my car. Yuko got permission to leave work for a while and I took her back to look at the house.
As expected, nothing was where it once was. Stone lanterns in the garden had been toppled, as had all the appliances and bookshelves inside. As we were looking about, there was a knock at the door. Actually, we weren’t sure at first that it was a knock at all. It was the first time a caller hadn’t used the doorbell. We still had no power.
We were blessed to discover [our neighbor] at the door. She had brought us hot noodles, courtesy of her generosity and her propane stove. She told us that water was available at the local junior high school. After we ate, we took some bottled water and snacks to [our neighbor], but she refused to accept.
We gathered the empty pop bottles that we had slated for recycling and headed towards the school.
We arrived to see the single longest line I’ve ever seen. It surrounded the entire school grounds and then snaked back and forth through the middle of the field like an intestine. There must have been 10,000 people there. It was as if they were going to a concert, but there was only one entrance to the arena.
We waited for two hours until a man with a bullhorn informed us that a water truck had finally arrived. Everyone was relieved until he added that it was only a 2-tonne truck and that supplies would be limited to 2 litres per person. I did the math and realized that only the first 1000 people would be served. Others too, realized that there would not be enough to go around. We decide to go back home. No one rioted. No one panicked. No one was discourteous.
Yuko went back to work serving the needy late into the night. I caught up on my sleep.
My birthday. And there was reason to celebrate: The electricity was restored at noon. The Internet was up and running and I was able to let everyone know that I was alive and well. The phone worked now too, and I soon received a call from External Affairs in Ottawa. My government was able to confirm my safety.
More birthday cheer: [another neighbor] from the older house across the street told us that she had a well-water spout at her house and that we and our neighbours could help ourselves. No more trips to the junior high. No more long lineups.
Monday has arrived as a beautiful spring day. The sun is shining and temperatures will rise to about 20.
Aftershocks are continual and the sirens never cease. We still have no water and rotating blackouts are to recur throughout the day. But we can live with that.
We know we have been lucky. Further north complete devastation reigns: Entire cities have been leveled by the quake, razed by the subsequent fires, and crushed under the tsunamis. Sixty percent of entire town populations are unaccounted for. Death tolls rise hourly.
Here we wait and watch the ongoing struggle to contain the nuclear reactors in Fukushima. We are prepared to evacuate if necessary.
But we are grateful to have our house. We are grateful for the kindness and generosity of our neighbours. We are grateful to be in a society where courtesy trumps selfishness and where patience triumphs over chaos. We are grateful to be alive and grateful to have each other.
Please keep those affected by the situation in Japan in your prayers.
If you haven't seen these pictures of the devastation, they are worth taking a moment to view. Slide the bar in the center of each picture left or right to see the before/after effects.