2011-03-24 / News

Native islander experiences the Japanese earthquake first-hand

By Todd Wassel

Todd Wassel Todd Wassel On March 11, just before 3 p.m., the largest earthquake in Japanese recorded history hit with a magnitude of 9. I was in Tokyo at the time visiting my wife’s family. As I sat at the kitchen table, happily posting pictures of Japan on Facebook, the room began to shake.

The quake started small, but with a sudden jolt. When the shaking didn’t stop I started to worry as the large cabinet rattled at my back and the light above me began to swing violently.

I moved to the middle of the room, away from anything that could fall on me. The preparation drills tell you to get under a table, put a cushion over your head, and open the door to make sure you have a way out if the house collapses. You are also supposed to shut off the gas to prevent a fire – too many tasks during a singularly frightening and dangerous moment.

All I knew was that I didn’t feel safe in the house with its paperthin walls and ceilings. I knew that my wife and I needed to get out of the house, but first we had to put on our shoes, a frustrating secondary step when you’re trying to flee a house.

We hit the road outside as the earth shifted beneath our feet, rolling in what felt like waves. Cars were stopped in the road and our neighbors came rushing out to join us; many crouched low to the ground trying to find some sort of stability as the earth rocked like a ship hit by a torpedo.

I tried to find the safest place and realized, in the Tokyo suburban sprawl that houses 33 million people, nowhere was truly safe. Above us the sky was blackened, not by smoke, but by a cat’s cradle of swinging electrical lines. Inside, outside, it didn’t matter; nowhere was really safe.

The quake lasted for almost three minutes. That is a very long time when the earth is moving under your feet. The country was hit with aftershocks reaching 7 that would have been massive if not compared to the original.

Alarm bells rang, the television beeped and binged as tsunami warnings flooded the airwaves. In a country used to earthquakes, this was something different. Lifetime residents of Tokyo remarked how it was the biggest they had ever felt, and we weren’t even at the center of the quake.

In Northern Japan, in Iwate and Fukushima Prefectures, the devastation was only just beginning. Soon after the first quake hit, while we sat glued to the television, our family gathered together as we watched in horror a 10-meter tsunami destroy the east coast of Japan.

Cars, buses and ships crashed into each other. Entire towns were swept away, houses ablaze as the tsunami waters flooded rivers and jumped dikes. We watch helplessly as Japanese news helicopters showed us live the wall of water advancing, overtaking unsuspecting people as they fled in their cars.

We sat, we watched, and we shook as more aftershocks hit one after the other.

We were fortunate. Our family and friends were safe, if not all with us due to the complete shutdown of Tokyo’s train system, which trapped millions of people in the city. I was to fly out and return to Kosovo on Saturday. I felt helpless having to leave when the need was so great. As an aid worker, I spend my life jumping from one crisis to the next. Now I was leaving this crisis and my family behind.

The next day an overburdened Narita Airport, I am feeling sick to my stomach at leaving my wife behind. As another earthquake hits us in the airport the steady shaking sends a women next to me into a panic and she tries to flee into multiple walls of people, each waiting to get to a check-in counter. Her husband is the only one to leave his line; he gently pulls her back, her face swollen from the frightened sobs that rack her body.

My journey across Tokyo was like a post-apocalyptic movie. It took me eight hours to navigate the labyrinth of closed train lines, bloated stations and swollen streets. Millions of people waited in patient lines, pressing into stations that had no outlet. People littered the hallways of the city’s underground shopping malls, sleeping, hugging and crying.

Throughout it all I was immensely impressed by the calmness of Japanese crowds, the straightness of the lines and the lack of pushing, shoving and anger that might have affected crowds in any other city in the world. The police funneled people to keep waves of people moving where they could.

When I finally got on a train moving towards the airport, we were packed in like sardines. Picture Tokyo at rush hour, times three, plus luggage. Except for the occasional outburst, everyone bore the pain and inconvenience with remarkable stoicism during the grueling three-hour ride. I, of course, missed my flight, but had my wife and family helping me to rebook as I concentrated on getting closer to the airport.

Todd Wassel grew up in Jamestown. He is currently an aid worker for the United Nations. Read more at his blog, www.toddswanderings.com.

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