I was sitting at my desk. It was a quiet day. I had no travel that day, no school visit, and there weren’t many people in the office. At that time we had quite a few vacant positions, so if anyone was traveling, the office seemed quiet.
I was typing on the computer, my desk facing the window, and distracted by my colleagues chatting. My boss had come out of his office and was talking to Rick who was in the next pod. I heard him say it was “a long one” and it took me a second to realize that the ground was shaking. We were having an earthquake. The only other earthquake I had experienced was twelve years before, my first week in Istanbul, Turkey. A quake that killed 17,000 people. So even though I lived in Japan, I had not felt an earthquake in my 7 ½ months there, and I wasn’t expecting it. The three of us chatted for a few seconds, and then my boss suggested that we should leave the building.
By this time, the building was really starting to shake, and already quite a bit of time had passed – maybe 45 seconds. We got outside and everything was moving in a very unnatural way. I sat down on the curb and I could feel the earth rolling in waves under my body. It felt like everything underneath me was liquid. I was immediately terrified. Honestly, it felt like I was in a science fiction movie. I expected the earth to open up and swallow all of us. In those seconds, Japan seemed like a small, insignificant island; like there was no chance for it to survive this battery.
Inside of the building we were all joking and lighthearted. Outside, we knew the quake had been going on too long and it was very strong. We looked around and saw cars bouncing off the ground, light poles swaying back and forth, and the building rocking. In Japan, most building are built on rollers, so they move quite gracefully during earthquakes – swaying back and forth. But we called our building “The Shack” and it definitely didn’t look secure at this moment.
It seemed like forever, and I suppose in earthquake time it was, but eventually the ground stopped moving. As we walked back into our building, we marveled at the length and strength of what we had just experienced. When you feel an earthquake, you have no idea where the epicenter is so you can’t know how bad things might be. And I don’t think any country is more prepared – builds better – for an earthquake than Japan. So, we really had no idea what had happened. And at that time we had no reason to be earthquake-obsessed, as I think we all are now. Now we know exactly which websites to check immediately, but then all we knew was to turn on the television. There was a small TV in the Superintendent’s office. He turned it on and we gathered around. There was no cable connection, so we watched a Japanese station and none of us understood Japanese. But they kept showing one disturbing picture of a lot of water sweeping under and then over a bridge, carrying a boat into the bridge. We figured it must be historical footage.
We went back to our desks, but it was difficult to concentrate. It was after three and I was surprised that they didn’t tell us we could go home. It really seemed like something significant had happened. I hardly got settled when my chair started moving again. It was another quake. Another big one. Another long one. We left the building again, this time more quickly, but also more concerned. But, it wasn’t as bad this time and the shaking stopped. We returned to our desks. We felt the ground moving, but couldn’t be sure if it was more quaking or our unsettled imaginations.
And, finally, it was four and time to go home. It was Friday, and sometimes on Fridays some of us went to the Club for happy hour. We decided if ever we needed a drink, it was now. Our base is bisected by a flight line. If a plane is landing, there is a traffic light to stop us from crossing the flight line. (I suppose in car vs. cargo plane, the car would lose.). And as I got closer to the light, it changed, stopping me and the five or so cars ahead of me.
Normally these stops are quite short. The plane lands or takes off and the light changes immediately. No planes were taking off, so I was waiting to see the plane coming in over the trees. But after more than five minutes, nothing had happened. Unusual. And then I saw the plane coming, but it was not right – not the right color, not the right size, not military. It got low enough for me to see the United written along the side. I knew then that something was wrong. We don’t get commercial liners landing on our airstrip.
I expected the light to change then but it didn’t. We waited, and then we saw another plane coming in. Another commercial plane. Another sign of serious problems. We sat at the flight line for an hour watching 11 American commercial planes land on our base. Knowing that something was seriously wrong, but not able to imagine what we would come to know as reality.
I got to the club, my friends and I found each other, and we sat down with our beverages to watch the television. It was unbelievable. Unimaginable. By then, the tsunami had hit. We watched in horror as entire towns were swept away. You see the cars, the trees, the houses…everything, carried away by water. And so many people with those things. Thousands of people. No warning. No escape. Just swept away.
We finished our drinks and made our ways home, knowing that we needed to contact family and friends. Check on some. Let others know that we were ok. We are not in a tsunami zone, but there were friends to help, things to do. Anyone in Tokyo had to walk home. Trains stopped, the expressway was gridlocked. We thought we were dealing with the worst of it.
To be continued. . . .