It was a bit like most other earthquakes at first. You stop whatever you’re doing under the sensation of the earth moving, realise what’s going on, and just wait. Earthquakes are not uncommon in Japan, much like many other areas of the world. They soon become natural, albeit a bit bothersome.
I was sat at the desk on reception at British Hills, a British themed hotel in the mountains of Fukushima, Japan. As guests arrived on the courtesy bus around 14:40 Japan time, I sat them down and began my usual spiel about the attractions available and hope they would have a nice time, etc. The earth started moving as it sometimes does. Starting with a little shake, there was nothing to worry about seemingly.
However, the shaking continued for a further 15 seconds or so, getting stronger in intensity similar to a boat or ship over violent seas. It was at this point when I realised my guests were no longer paying attention to what I was saying and started to become concerned, as did I. While I was sat on a wheeled chair, it along with me, was quite a heavy combination, but I started to feel swayed in it. This wasn’t an ordinary earthquake then, and in a tight hot suit, I wasn’t ‘suitably dressed’ to be active and running somewhere. But where do you run when the entire earth is knocked off its axis by 6 degrees as the media later reported?
No, it wasn’t an ordinary earthquake. It was a bloody big one. In fact the biggest to ever hit Japan in history, and in the top 5 biggest of all time to hit earth in recorded history. Topping the richter scale at 9.0 and the Japan earthquake scale at 7 and it doesn’t go any higher on the Japan/Shindo scale then that. It’s not so much a measurement of force as a measurement of damage that is inevitable. It rates a 7 as earth movement at around 4 metres per second, and that’s minimum, this is not just left and right, but up and down too, so you can imagine control is lost quite quickly.
The Richter scale goes up in power by a factor of 10 every 1.0 increase. So to compare the same year’s earthquake in New Zealand which hit 6.6 on the richter scale. The Great Tohoku earthquake (as its become to be known as) was not 50% more powerful, but around 9000 times more powerful. Most Japanese buildings in Tokyo are built to an extremely high standard to withstand destruction from earthquakes, as they’ve learnt from experience the hard way here. Despite this I believe the 9.0 earthquake was higher than what most of the buildings were rated to withstand, although most still did remarkably well. I said back then after it, kudos to the Japanese engineers who saved millions of lives that day by sticking to such high quality building standards.
Back to where I was before. Ah yes, the earth was moving. Paying attention to how much my chair had been moving, I hadn’t noticed the guests had got up until shouting started. In earthquakes, no out gets loud to start with.
It’s just deadly silence and widened eyes.
The wonder of ‘how far this one will go’ preoccupies everyones mind… until a certain point. It’s hard to define that point because its different for everyone. But when the people who know what to do in earthquakes started jumping under tables, shouting at each other in a language I couldn’t understand and attempting to prevent heavy oak furniture and computers from falling down, was when I hit that point. Yes, the biggest earthquake of Japans history, had only just started.
When the earth starts to make more noises than the people close to you are shouting about it and alarms you never knew existed start blaring, you know trouble is here. I felt it was my duty to protect the guests, so prioritised them getting under the heavy tables and my female work colleagues. Who said one had to stop being a gentleman in the middle of an emergency anyway?
Looking back though, I don’t feel like I was being a gentleman, just stupid. My life was on the line and I didn’t even consider that it could end at any moment. What I did consider though is getting my phone out of my pocket and filming the action. With the guests protected the action REALLY started. That chair of mine? Gone. About 5 metres away now. The big chandelier imported from France (weighing in at around 150Kg) and hanging on a British company (specialising in plates now) designed ceiling (2 countries not particularly experienced in earthquakes then) was swinging so violently, it was hitting the ceiling at both ends of its 180 degree swing.
But alas something else I regret, I did not start recording a video of the action. Shame really as it would have got quite a few hits on youtube I imagine. I didn’t do it as I thought it was distasteful and I should be looking after the welfare of the guests rather than make a vid that could get me famous on the internet. At least I know how I am in emergencies now… the same as I am when not in an emergency. Not recording that moment was however my biggest regret.
It felt like forever. In fact it was around 45 seconds long. But in earthquake terms, thats a lot of seconds. Count them. 45 of them. Now do that while inside a washing machine being rolled down a rocky mountain with chairs flying past you as you do it. That’s kinda like what that moment was like for me.
The lights went out. The alarm which started ringing at the start had stopped, and the computers cut out too. There was no screaming, just weeping of likely and untimely death, and pure fear for peoples own lives. I remember someone shouting ‘hold on’, and someone who shall remain nameless asking me to protect them but that’s about it.
After a very scary 45 seconds. It stopped.
That was it. All over. I’m alive, and I saw no-one die.
Heads popped out from under the table as people inspected the damage of the earthquake. There was a silent relief and matching concern. We all wanted to get out, but we all wanted to communicate too. As reception staff I needed to round up the guests, but fortunately the Japanese staff started the headcount early before I even got to this point. Eventually all guests and staff inside the main building were evacuated outside in the snow. The building could collapse after all, although it did look ok from the outside, no visible cracks, but this was not something we knew when inside the building.
I was sent on one errand to find an unaccounted guest. Again this was probably above the call of duty. I came to Japan to work behind a desk on a computer and take people on tour guides in English, not pull out bodies from rubble. But still I didn’t question it and went in search of a guest inside a building modelled on 16th century British architecture which had just been through a 9.0 earthquake.
Inside the room I found destruction everywhere. The TV had flown out of its wooden cabinet, a lamp had fallen over, the guests items were on the floor except a laptop but there was no sign of him and no fresh bloodstains anywhere either. Only a open window letting in the cool breeze from the outside. A classic escape scene. I looked out the window and couldn’t see anyone, and more importantly, no footsteps in the snow from the window. The guest didn’t leave this way so I went back to report him missing.
Fortunately the guest was there when I got back, it was during this time I was informed of the evacuation point (a car park safely away from the buildings) where I met up with everyone else. Fortunately no one died, and no one was injured. For a foreigner like myself with no friends of family around Japan at the time, it was time to breath a sigh of relief. It was not the same for the Japanese staff though, who all of a sudden had to consider everyone in their lives who they didn’t have contact with at that moment in time could now quite possibly be dead. The most powerful thing in times like this is information.
With the mini buses and staff cars rounded in after a good 30 minutes out in the snow I got myself a place in a minivan. I was lucky enough to be in a minivan with a TV, so I could see something happening. The news channel (and trust me EVERY channel was a news channel after an event like that) had so much information pouring across the screen (not atypical of Japanese TV shows) it was hard to make out what was going on. Many reports of the earthquake though, and it looked like some water had come into land from the sea presumably triggered by the earthquake.
Shortly after everyone was moved back into the gym of the building when the earth seemed to have settled. Aftershocks (basically a smaller earthquake occurrence due to a big earthquake) had happened so someone figured it would be safe to go back inside now until further information was obtained. A quite game of jenga occurred which suited a lot of peoples sense of humour off quite nicely. You haven’t lived until you’ve played earthquake Jenga!
A TV was set up and the news finally came in courtesy of the BBC we had it in English too. It was bad. Very bad. That water coming in was a tsunami destroying buildings, cars and people in its path keeping around 2 metres in height from the ground with tens of thousands of tonnes of force behind it. If you could see it and you weren’t a buildings height above it, the sobering truth is you stood little chance of surviving.
Of course this unsettled the Japanese staff more. Many had family in Sendai where the tsunami had struck. From elderly parents to young children. I can fortunately say now that all the staff had their families all accounted for, but it was a couple of weeks without contact for a few of them made things very difficult.
Anyway that was my experience of the day. I am thankful I’m still here and survived to tell the tale. But I can’t end the article on anything but dedicating it to all the families affected by the disasters that hit that day, including the takedown of nuclear power stations. My thoughts go out to those who couldn’t live to say what happened to them that day.
If you’d like to help, please make a donation to one of the Japanese earthquake relief funds.