On March 11, 2011 I was in Tokyo when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck – magnitude 9 – devastating a country and people I love deeply. I volunteered to deploy into the disaster area with colleagues to help in whatever way we could. What I experienced changed my life.
On the fourth anniversary I wanted to share some of that experience with you through a series of journal entries and emails I sent at the time. This is the fourth and final post in the series.
Tohoku 2011 Part IV – The First 30 Minutes
11 March 2011 – 1446: I am in a minivan with a delegation, heading to a meeting that we have spent the last two months organising. Confirming logistics for meetings across borders, no matter who you are dealing with, often feels like pulling teeth – your own… with a rusty wrench. I am pointing out the various landmarks – at this particular juncture the US Embassy – dutifully playing tour guide and keeping everyone occupied while we sit in traffic, going nowhere fast. I have todays schedule in my head. This is no surprise, I am a Virgo. Organised to a ‘t’. I am feeling calm, focussed, and a little self-important. We are running on time, I know this city and the visit is going swimmingly. And then the screaming begins. Followed by a strange popping sound above us as bullets of safety glass begin to rain down on the roof. ‘Someone is committing suicide.’
1447: People are running, swarming around the stationary traffic, furtively glancing up, struggling for balance, and I finally comprehend what is happening. I glance out the window and watch as power-lines sway madly, easing towards the ground, bending as though pulled by gravity. The security teams assigned to the US Embassy are scrambling from their posts, urging people away from buildings, as a power line unfurls and snaps angrily at the ground.
I understand… Earthquake. The fourth today. 5.2M. 4.7M. 4.9M… Earthquake.
1448: I yell at the driver, “Earthquake!” I’m stating the obvious in an attempt to restart the clock, because time seems frozen, everyone staring blankly out the window, mesmerised by the evolving chaos. “Forward. Fast. Now.” Japanese simplified. No time for grammar. Our driver responds without hesitation, but his eyes are as wide as saucers. An expression I have never understood, until now. I can see them in the rearview mirror as they flicker from me to the road and back to me. We have become an unwitting unit. The van is crowded with silence. “Move. Middle lane.” Anywhere but under these damn powerlines! “Stop.” People are still running onto the road. “Wait.” No one else is speaking… guess who’s in charge… and here’s what I know now, once you nominate yourself, there’s no going back.
1449: A part of my brain registers the trees, all limbs, naked of foliage, wriggling, as though trying to pull their roots from the ground and flee. The buildings are in full swing, structurally designed for this very moment, arching backwards and forwards, ridiculously graceful. I am in a silent movie. Or a ballet. I hold my breath as the world pirouettes. The van bounces on the spot, picking up the earth’s rhythm.
1450: ‘We’re going to be late for our meeting.’ Everyone has begun repeating the word ‘earthquake’, in Japanese and English, as though to make sure we are all in agreement. Earthquake. Jishin.
1453: The van finally stops its jig and settles. I instruct our driver to continue to our meeting venue, it’s closer than our base, and will allow us time to regroup and make a plan. There is no phone reception. No GPS. No newsfeed. We are off the grid in the middle of Tokyo. And maybe when we arrive someone else will take charge and I wont have to decide the course of our lives…
1500: We are on time! The world is deceptively calm. Storm in a teacup. We still have no communication or newsfeed, but that was it. Surely? It is over. Agreed? Agreed. Carry on. I calculate that if there is another tremor we are heading home regardless. Where was the epicentre? What was the magnitude? Seven? Eight? The delegation are straightening their ties, standing outside the van, tentatively, on uncertain legs. I smooth sweaty palms down my skirt and smile. It comes out as a grimace.
1501: The lifts have stopped and people are crowding down the stairs, evacuating the building. We are swimming against the current, the only people going inside, as people spill onto the street, wearing their standard-issue hardhats. This is Tokyo’s body armour and I find myself desperately longing for the up-armoured car and body armour of my Iraq days. I know exactly what to do if a mortar comes my way, but if the street opens up and tries to swallow me… I know I am lost.
1505: Our point of contact arrives pale, but professional. His tie is askew and one cuff is rolled up. As though ready for battle. More than likely he was not expecting us but was leaving the building with everyone else. We suggest cancelling the meeting but, no, you have come all the way from Australia, we are happy to proceed, but perhaps a shorter meeting? The conversation that ensues is so strange that it may as well be in code. Are they saving face or is this meeting more important than even I realised? Its hard to know. A parody commences, of which no one else seems aware. They begin discussing which room has the most natural light… given the power is out. But, where was the epicentre?
1506: One of the delegates wants to use the bathroom. He’s barely gone when the first aftershock hits. 6.4M, 25kms deep.
I am standing inside one of the oldest buildings in Tokyo, the scaffolding around the parameter marking the first work they have probably done in 20 plus years and all I can think of is how if it may become my prison. I brace my feet wide and stand in a doorway. I’m surprised by how smooth and cold the tiles are under my hands. I order everyone to join me. It appears no one wants to be the first to admit their stomach is in their mouth and they join me as though under duress. The delegate in the bathroom hasn’t reappeared, but I can hardly blame him. If there was a bathtub nearby, I’d probably be in it. Or is that only tornados? I think about my evacuation bag sitting by my front door.
1507: The second aftershock hits barely seconds after the first finishes. 6.4M, 35kms deep. We continue to discuss the proposed meeting as the ground lurches beneath us like a rodeo ride. I’ve had a rocket land 14 metres away from me in the past, but right now I’ve had enough. I want off this bucking bronco. Loss of face or not, this is ridiculous. And if it takes a woman to be the first to show fear then so be it. I call it common-sense.
I bow at an appropriate depth, which is no mean feat with the ground heaving beneath me. “I thank you for your kind offer to continue to host the meeting, but I think you now need to look after your own staff and check on your families. You do not need six extra people to look after. We will go back to our office and check-in as well.” His whole body relaxes – “You are very wise, thank you”. Yes, yes I am. What I’m not is ‘calm, focussed or very self-important’ anymore. Our bathroom evac reappears, a wild edge to his eyes. I tell him we are going back to the office and he too relaxes as though his whole body is made of jello.
1509: Our driver is wringing his hands when I climb back into the van, he has a look reserved for when a human-being is witnessing something truly terrifying and unbelievable. The comms are back up and he has the TV feeding through the GPS. I watch speechless as the first in a series of devastating tsunamis roll in on small towns 300kms away. We are not the epicentre. This is much worse. The epicentre is 130kms off the coast of Sendai. 9M.
I corral the delegates into the van. They seem caught by the sight of the streets of Tokyo filling with people – the ‘car crash’ effect. People pouring out of subways and buildings, like ants emerging from a deep underground nest. The winter grass beneath our feet is brown and tired, and blessedly still, but I am conscious that it may not be for much longer. The damage on the road back to our base is unknown and it is imperative we get moving. This is my only conscious plan.
As we drive back, we speak in hushed voices. Everyone hitting redial over and over as we try to reach loved ones, while the only connection to the outside world appears to be the news broadcasting over the GPS, bringing the devastation directly to us. I can’t seem to catch my breath and become aware of how tightly I am holding myself, together, as the scenes play out on a screen too small for the moment. I’m wondering if my mum is seeing this. If my cousins who have been here on a ski trip for the past two weeks are still in Japan. And I’m wishing we didn’t have comms just yet… that we could have those fifteen minutes it would take to get us home without this knowledge. Even while I know that the worst is yet to come.
It is 1516.
** To understand the full scale of the disaster in terms of earthquakes and aftershocks go to: Japan Quake. There will be 78 earthquakes and aftershocks before the end of the first day. 148 the following day.