Personal Earthquake Account

I have no words for what’s going on here in Japan and yet I must find some… So I’ll try with a very personal account of what happened here yesterday and of what’s going on right now.

I was in the office when the quake struck in downtown Tokyo. Our office is at one of the big traffic knots of the city called Shibuya. The building I work in has 17 floors, I sit in floor 13. A few minutes before 3 p.m. local time the quake(s) started. The big one announced itself wickedly: it started to shake and everyone was looking up from his or her computer (we are about 30 people in the floor, open plan office). Instead of doing what it usually does, starting to calm down after a few moments, this time the quake didn’t subside. It got gradually worse. People started to shout and some did what we are supposed to do in case of a quake and that is get under our desks. During various earthquake drills people are making fun of having to crawl under the desk, including myself, but this time we went under our desks for real. Every one of us has a helmet hanging on a hook under the desk and more or less everyone got the helmet out and put it onto his/her head. The swaying wouldn’t stop and got worse and worse, the blinds were swaying back and forth, slamming into the windows, some picture frames fell off the walls. Earthquakes are awfully loud. The ground was swaying so much that you couldn’t walk straight. I don’t know, of course, how bad it was on the ground, but in floor 13 I bet we swayed a meter back and forth if not more.

Around my office building are plenty of others: a 25 floors one across the road, a new one under construction next to that one already as high with cranes on top. When the swinging subsided a bit I made the mistake to crawl out from under my desk, helmet on head and to look at those cranes… they swayed like mad. Soon announcement came from our disaster center, “assuring” us that our building wouldn’t collapse and asking us to stay on our floor. I checked the Internet immediately and I’m not sure whether I remember correctly, but the first announcement was yet magnitude 7.8 or so. The swaying continued more or less the whole time, but the building calmed down a bit. One young German intern guy, just two weeks in Japan, was completely freaked out: white in the face and shaking. The Japanese were freaked out as well of course, but that German kid was worst off. We rushed around to the windows and watched people leaving the buildings around us and I wanted to go down too, but they told us to stay. Maybe twenty minutes or half an hour later after several smaller aftershocks I went to the bathroom and while I was in there, the second big quake (7.4) hit close to Tokyo off the coast of Ibaraki. Being thrown more or less from one wall to the other through the corridor I rushed back to my seat to see two foreign colleagues who had come down from another floor in the meantime standing there in the middle of the room laughing, one eating pudding, the other an apple, showing off how cool they were and what fun they had. None of the Japanese nor I shared the feeling. I guess everyone needs some way to cope with disaster, but trying to show off how cool you are does not count very high in my system of values and believes. This was bad and it was certain and obvious that the very moment those two were showing off and eating pudding, people elsewhere were dying. In my opinion that’s inappropriate behavior and disrespectful and I have many words for those two in my head, but will not write them here.

Again announcements were coming about the building being safe and that we should stay in our floor. But to be honest I was starting to lose my cool and wanted to get out of the building. Finally, maybe 45 minutes after the big and first one hit, they allowed people from floors 13 to 17 to leave the building. Of course we had to walk down the stairs. I packed my stuff quickly and with helmet on head was one of the last to leave our floor. Descend through the staircase went smoothly and in orderly fashion. But it was accompanied by many exclamations in the lines of “Holy Shit” since the further down you got, the more dust lay on the floor, stuff splintered from the plastering off the walls. Finally outside I started to feel a bit better. In fact, being outside was probably not such a good idea, since there is no real “empty” ground in Shibuya anywhere. No matter where you are something could fall on your head. But the psychological effect of being on the ground helped at least me to calm down. Everything felt pretty weird and surreal. Japanese and foreigners stood around in groups and talked excitedly, all the Japanese said this was their worst quake ever. Well, yes, it was. Only that we didn’t know that yet. Suddenly, a siren sounded and for the first time ever there was an official announcement from the warden. Someone in the Shibuya ward office announced that in Shibuya ward so far nobody had died, no fires, no buildings collapsed, they asked us to relax but to be careful about aftershocks.

After half an hour outside, where it was cold and windy, people started to go back into the building, but I had no desire to return to 13th floor. Being so high up during a quake has the awkward effect of making you feel seasick. The swaying screws with the sense of balance and you feel like being seasick or drunk. A small group of seasick people including myself found shelter in the driver’s room of our building. I didn’t even know we had one in B1, right next to the building administration office. 6 people gathered there, 5 Japanese and myself, including one lady from my floor, the others were from the 15th floor. That little room we borrowed had two arm chairs, a sofa and a TV to offer. There are no TVs in our office floors and so we decided to stay and watch. I don’t remember exactly but I think I watched the unfolding disaster from about 16:30 onwards. We saw some of the tsunamis coming in live. More and more news came in that it was BAD. All trains in Tokyo stopped and the city came to a standstill. TV switched wildly between Tsunami spots, and also the chaos in Tokyo, because frankly, they had more material to show from the chaos in Tokyo than the devastation of northern Japan. Just 500 meters down the road thousands of people were lining up at Shibuya’s central bus stops and taxi stands trying to get home. Seeing that, the other lady from 13th floor and myself went down the street to Meiji road to get some money out of the ATM and to buy some food in a convenience store. We went to two stores and all sandwiches, onigiris (rice balls) and bread were gone already. Only some salads and cup ramen were left and non-fresh produce cakes. People were calm but eager to get supplies, just like us. We bought some supplies and went back to our company and the room with the TV.

By 17:30 or so, the disaster center of the company announced that we were allowed to go home, if we could make it… at the same time they announced to break out emergency water and canned cookies and that people who wanted to stay could get blankets and that the meeting rooms in our 8th floor would be sleeping space.

Two of the 6 people in the TV room decided to walk home, the rest of us stayed. For me the hike home would have been about 20km, whilst not really knowing the way (half of my train ride into town is underground). On TV they asked people to stay at their work places if ever possible instead of trying to get home by all means. That’s what we did.

The whole time, more and more news came in about the devastation and tsunamis.  At the same time aftershocks rocked the country constantly. The TV announces all earthquakes above “felt” magnitude 3, which usually means a quake of magnitude 4 and stronger. There are/were aftershocks every five minutes. In B1 (with a ramp leading up to open ground) where we sat, we hardly felt the smaller aftershocks. Not so of course in floor 13, where everything still swayed as I found out when I went up once to dump my work computer in my desk. People had gone to convenient stores and bought wine and beer and half of the people left in 13th floor were drunk and having a party… Japanese fatalism.

I went back to B1 and watched TV.  At about that time the first news came in concerning problems at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima that had been hit by the tsunami and where cooling systems have failed. While I am writing this, a bit less than 24 hours later, things have gotten worse, apparently some explosion has blown the building of block 1 apart………….

We broke out food in B1 and got some hot water for our cup ramens. All of us were trying to reach friends and family. No phone worked, only mails and also they went through only after sending them a couple of times.

We had already given up hope of making it home that night but from about 22:00 onwards trains started to work again (after the train companies had checked their rail systems). JR (Japan Railway) stayed out of service (their network is just too big) but the private lines and Tokyo Metro were starting to work again one by one, trying to get some of the thousands of people stranded in Tokyo home. The whole town was one entire huge traffic jam, with more stop than go. They opened up all schools, ward offices, halls, anything, to let stranded people camp for the night.  It’s still pretty cold here, around 5 degrees Celsius at night and windy too and you chill out in less than an hour. I heard somewhere in the news today that nearly 10,000 stranded people camped in Tokyo’s schools and halls. I don’t know how many camped at their companies, but a substantial number for sure. Around 23:30 they announced that my train line had resumed service. My new friend from 13th floor and I decided to try to go for it at about 1 in the morning, after the first rush was over. She wanted to stay with her sister who lives on that line, since her home line had already announced it wouldn’t resume service that night. Our strategy worked and the train was relatively empty and although running with reduced speed only, it ran and eventually I came back home at 2 in the morning. Lots of stuff had fallen down (see photos) but no big damage. I wonder though where the water went that was in the bucket. That’s my emergency bucket and it’s usually filled to the brim. The ground around the bucket was dry. Maybe it swapped into the bathtub but that would have been one well aimed swap. Strange…

I went to bed at about 3 and after three aftershocks managed to fall asleep maybe at 4. Turning off the TV and light and lying in bed, I still felt like I was swaying for a while… I managed to get some 5 hours of sleep, got up and cleaned up the mess. I went down to the supermarket at around 15:00 and no bread, no cup ramen left… I bought some stocks and now here I sit and follow the news about the nuclear power plant that is going gau on us??? I HOPE not.

The tsunami devastation I see on TV is unimaginable. Whole communities have been wiped off the map. I am sure the number of people who died will be many thousand. This is the worst disaster Japan has seen since WW2. I don’t know how to cope with what I’m seeing on TV, knowing that it’s happening only a few hundred kilometers away from me. While writing this report I felt 3 aftershocks. I only hope we won’t get a big aftershock that causes another tsunami. The country has been devastated, if you have money to spare, please donate (as will I) to the Red Cross or whatever.  We all knew the big one would hit one day, now it happened. No idea what more devastation will be revealed in the coming days and what will happen to that nuclear power plant… The Japanese people will dig themselves out of the mess again, I’m sure, but please let’s help them as much as we can. Thank you.


5 thoughts on “Personal Earthquake Account

  1. So glad to hear you’re alive and well. And still shaking from this intense account of the events over there. Can’t stand to see the horrible images of all the devastation all over Japan. 🙁
    Apparently, the repercussions of the earthquakes could be felt as far as back here in Germany. (I was awake at that time and didn’t notice, but probably, if you stood really still in a quiet place, you could feel it – imagine that.)
    I’m listening to the news all the time, and especially the reports about the reactors (not only Fukushima, it seems there is a final storage place for nuclear waste that has the same problem) is really bad. One expert said that the fact that the reactor is leaking Caesium means that the meltdown of the core is already happening. And that 10 km evacuation zone is not nearly enough, that the radioactivity will probably spread in a 100 km radius.
    Regina, I’m so worried, please take care!!!

  2. well, at the moment it’s 20 km evacuation… in case of 100 km… where are all these people supposed to go???
    Tokyo is 220 km away… gulp…

  3. Interesting yes… where did the water of the bucket go… is there someone who’s got a key to your appartment?
    I’ve heard from Miho, she is afraid, but her granny is cool.
    Oh dear… actually, I really don’t know what to say, only… AAAAAAHHH!!
    I so hope you all will be fine!!!
    Damn nuclear power!

  4. Regina,

    I’ve been following the news reports online, but they are not as chilling as your first-hand description. I’m glad that you are safe and hope that you and the people of Japan are doing what you can to survive this terrible crisis.

    You are definitely in my thoughts and prayers. Stay safe!

  5. This is lowly-scribe from your anticipation workshop. Your account made me feel like I went through it in a way that none of the news reports have done. I’m glad you linked this from our group.

    I liked in Kyoto years ago for a couple of years. If you have to go through a horrible disaster like this, at least in Japan I know people will be polite and try to help each other. Thank you for writing about this.

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