Monday, March 10, 2014

3/11 Three Years on Part 2: What Happened to Me

Day 1 Friday March 11, 2011
            It was graduation day.  After the ceremony the students had gone home early so only we teachers were left at school and another teacher and I were talking to each other about the faculty party scheduled for that night when the shaking started.  I instinctively took shelter in the doorway out of the teachers room.  For the past year my rule had been that if the shaking did not knock anything down, I would not worry.  The first tremor knocked everything over, including me.  After the shaking ended I could not move for a minute.  The lights went off.  The shaking stopped and the office was a mess but the building appeared to be undamaged.  The principal came out of his office and began to direct everything.  I went back to my desk to sort things out when the next tremor struck and one of the Japanese teachers told me all had to leave the building so we ran out onto the baseball field.  It was snowing and I hadn’t tried to get my coat.  The shaking continued.  Some of the teachers got out their cell phones and turned on a web browser or television in order to get the news and we heard about the tsunami.  The teachers kept using a word I had never heard before but could understand that translates to “great tsunami.”
            We waited outside for an hour while the shaking continued.  Finally the principal decided it was safe to go back inside and start setting up the gym to be a shelter.  The other teachers told me I would be best off if I went home and saw to my apartment, and check in at my neighborhood shelter.  I took their advice and drove home.  There were no functioning traffic lights, but the roads were passable.  Traffic was a mess, compared to normal, but it worked.  I could drive through.  I got home without trouble.  I went into my apartment to see the mess.  The building was undamaged, but the shaking had thrown most of my things onto the floor.  I put a change of clothes, a liter of water, canned food, and a blanket into my large backpack and went out to go to the shelter.  I planned to walk but ran into three of my neighbors, Irish engineers named Seamus, Damien and James.  They were preparing to drive to the shelter and invited me to go with them.  The shelter was in a public gymnasium a few miles up the road from my apartment.  It had no working lights and very little heat.  So we decided we would be better off camping in Seamus’ car in our apartment parking lot.  At this point I attempted to contact my parents to let them know I was okay, but I couldn’t get through on either my Japanese cell phone or my blackberry.  The Irish all had iPhones that could get internet, and a car charger.  Seamus lent me his iPhone to get on Facebook, where I wrote “Im ok” in my status bar.  We listened to Irish news reports via internet.  At that point the confirmed death toll was around 20.  I did not know the full extent of the damage at that point, and believed the death toll would stay low. 

Aftershocks continued through the night, and until I left Japan.

Day 2 Saturday March 12, 2011
            We woke up around 5:30.  There was a thin layer of snow on the ground.  The snow melted by lunchtime.  We decided to go look for food and gasoline, and since nothing was open we went to the shelter to find some of our neighbors who James had seen there the night before.  The shelter gave us some bread and tea, but not much since it had to be rationed of course.  There was no sign of our neighbors, so we went back to the apartment.  Turns out, they had all spent the night in their rooms.  The Irish went searching for more gasoline and food again.  They came back and reported that gasoline was currently reserved for rescue and relief vehicles, but some convenience stores were open.  It would have been my usual grocery day.  I went scrounging for food with two other Americans and found a Seven Eleven with a short line in front (Short being twelve or thirteen people ahead of us).  Most of the convenience stores in town seemed to be open, with similar rules.  Four to six people could go in at a time and buy one basket full per person.  So I stocked up on convenience store food: dried fish, beef jerkey, potato chips, crackers and cup noodle (In the vain hope power would be restored). 
            Cell phone service was still out, but iPhones could get internet, if they had power.  Early Saturday evening, Eric was recharging his iPhone in my car and we tried to send e-mails to our parents.  My car had the most gas, so we had designated it the getaway vehicle.  Eric got an e-mail from a friend: “Don’t believe Japanese TV, the Fukushima power plant exploded.  There was a sound and a ‘blue.’”  We (Ryan, Eric and me) did not think it was safe in Osaki anymore and decided to flee north.  Ryan thought we should try to get to an American airfield in Aomori and beg for help there, and maybe go on to Sapporo and try to fly home.  We ran into our apartments, grabbed some changes of clothes, our laptops, passports and all of our food, piled into my car, and drove off into the night.  I was having a panic attack.  Ryan wanted to try to get to an American base in Aomori and ask for help there.  First we tried to get to Morioka, a medium sized city north of us by highway, but the highway was closed to all but relief vehicles.  So we drove north to Ichinoseki, a town on the prefectural line.  Ichinoseki was a ghost town.  Eric got out of the car to speak to a lone old woman walking down the road.  He learned nothing.  We turned back to a road stop where Eric spoke to a man about the nuclear reactors, and learned that there was an explosion, but the core was fine, and Osaki was far enough from Fukushima.  We turned back and spent the night in our apartments.  My flashlight burned out that night.

Day 3 Sunday March 13, 2011
            Cell phone service returned that day, but it was another day of scrounging for food and waiting in bread lines.  Eric and Ryan got a call through to the US Embassy, but got the answering machine.  Mid-morning Eric, Ryan and I walked around town to see any damage and what stores had reopened when we passed a friend of Eric’s who advised us to look for small stores.  Osaki still had enough food at this point, but some of it was rationed.  Most of the grocery stores, convenience stores, liquor stores and some hard-wear stores had reopened.  I bought some fruits and vegetables, Ryan and Eric stocked up on alcohol.  They also made contact with the US embassy, and learned that US Forces Japan had joined the relief efforts in Tohoku and would be in Sendai the next day.  But nothing else.  While out searching for food, I ran into Suzuki Hiroshi, an old man I used to play shogi with on weekends.  Suzuki invited me to his house the next day to play shogi.  He told me that everyone from the shogi club was alright.  We found Mr. Suzuki by an ad hoc cell phone charging station, but the station was closing just as we got there.  My bank also reopened that day.  Every transaction had to be done the old fashioned way: on carbon paper and it worked perfectly.  Running water came back.

Day 4 Monday March 14, 2011
            I spent most of the morning playing shogi with Mr. Suzuki at his house, which was completely undamaged by the quake.  He also had working gas so they offered me hot food and tea.  I went home after lunch.  By now cell phone service was partially restored, but my cell phone was dead.  I had just enough energy on my blackberry to finally look at e-mail and facebook, but only just enough juice to put one more status update.  Ryan’s girlfriend Kumi lent me a car charger that worked with my Japanese cell phone.  While I charged up the phone in my car I tried to check in with a few of my friends and saw some messages from mom about her efforts to get in touch with me or get help to me through her contacts everywhere.  I finally managed to call my boss who told me what the other Heart ALTs were doing.  While I was doing this three agents from the US Embassy arrived at our apartment.  They said they had not come to rescue us, but only to locate Ryan, Eric and me.  They said I was a “high profile case” and my mom was absolutely distraught.  The embassy asked us to fill out forms giving the embassy permission to release information about the three of us.  Turns out they had forgotten the forms, so we had to write out a letter giving permission on his notepad.  I also asked if they could lend me a flashlight as mine had burned out.  They had no flashlights or relief supplies of any kind.  I did give him information about other American ALTS in Osaki.  The embassy also mentioned evacuation buses taking people from Sendai to Yamagata, a city on the other side of the mountains that was relatively unaffected by the quake.  Ryan and Eric talked about leaving.  Suzuki-san came back while this was going on to tell me about a cell phone charging station and invite me over to dinner.

            Gas stations reopened to the general public that day, but had to ration fuel.  Seamus said the ration was eleven liters per car.  The lines for gasoline stretched as long as three blocks.

            When I went to sleep I got a phone call from Kamimura Satoshi, a GE employee who had agreed to help me, through Rick D’Avino, a very good friend of my parents’ and an important lawyer at GE.  Satoshi told me how I could get out of Miyagi, and about a GE lawyer in Sendai, Arikura Kaz who could help.

            Kaz’s husband had been in Ishinomaki on business when the tsunami hit his building.  Kaz’s husband survived because he was on the third floor.  They were reunited a few days later, when he found a car that could take him to Sendai.  Satoshi told this to me.  The Irish heard from their colleagues that Ishinomaki’s shelters were ruined by the waves, and hundreds of people had to stay in a department store called AEON.

Day 5 Tuesday March 15, 2011
            Some electricity returned to Osaki.  ALPS got its power back, but the engineers knew that ALPS’ facilities were too badly damaged for any work to get done. Kaz called, and she explained that I could get out through roads in the mountains heading west into the next prefecture, or go into Sendai on Route 4 and take an evacuation bus to Yamagata.  From Yamagata I could take a plane to Tokyo or Osaka.  I finally spoke to mom, who told me to accept Kaz’s help and go with Ryan and Eric.  I woke them up to talk about it and we decided to make a run for it.  At first we thought we could drive to Yamagata airport and fly to Tokyo, but did not have confidence that enough gas remained in my car for the trip, so we decided to leave by way of Sendai.  Eric, Ryan and I each packed a bag and drove off with a few sets of clothes and our laptops.  Eric charged his iPhone as we drove.  The parts of Sendai we drove through seemed mostly undamaged.  Central Sendai had working electricity, but most stores were closed and people still had to line up outside of grocery stores.  Kaz met us in Sendai, outside a broadcast building used by NHK and NTT Docomo.  She gave us a map of the area around Yamagata station and a map explaining how we could get to Tokyo the roundabout way.  Our plan A was to take a bus to Yamagata, then a taxi to Yamagata airport and a plane to Tokyo.  We left my car in Sendai in a parking space by the prefectural office.  On the bus one of my middle school teachers called me.  My colleagues and students were all ok, but there were not going to be any classes.  I told him that I was leaving Japan.  We said good-bye on the phone.  He sounded a little sad.  The three of us got to Yamagata without any trouble, but at the airport saw that all flights to Tokyo and Osaka were booked for two days.  We went back into the city and planned another way out, based on the information Kaz gave us.  Our route was a bus from Yamagata to Tsuruoka.  From Tsuruoka we would take a train to Niigata, and finally catch a bullet train to Tokyo, where Satoshi would meet us.  It was too late to do any of that until the next day.  At Yamagata train station we charged our cell phones and Eric met a man who could get us a room at the Yamagata Richmond Hotel.  We spent the night in Yamagata.  Eric and Ryan spoke to their parents and spent the night on the town.  I spent the night in the hotel room trying to get in touch with people.  Everyone was okay too.  I finally got to Skype with mom, my friend Wendy and even a reporter from CBS news.

Day 6 Wednesday March 16, 2011
            We got up early to stand in line at the bus depot.  It was snowing in Tohoku, but it was not too cold.  We had to wait in line for about an hour and a half, but we were able to get on a bus bound for Tsuruoka.  In Tsuruoka we caught a train to Niigata.  The weather and increased traffic from people fleeing quake-affected regions slowed the train down, but the scenery along the train tracks was beautiful.  In Niigata we transferred to a bullet train bound for Tokyo.  Satoshi met us on the platform in Tokyo and drove us to a hotel near his home.  Tokyo is normally very crowded.  Not so that day.  Tokyo was, by it’s own standards, practically a ghost town.  There were people outside walking around, and people driving but very few.  Satoshi had not just booked any hotel, he booked us a room in the Grand Hyatt Tokyo, in the heart of Roppongi.  Ryan and Eric finished making travel plans but I had one more problem.  Before the earthquake I planned to travel in Southeast Asia after the school year ended, and had sent my passport to the Embassy of Vietnam to apply for a visa.  I mailed my application to the embassy the day before the earthquake.  I tried to get in touch with the Embassy of Vietnam to see about my passport, but could never get through by phone so I gave up my passport as lost.

Day 7 Thursday March 17, 2011
            I went to the U.S. Embassy early in the morning to get an emergency passport.  I expected the embassy would be crowded by Americans in need of help leaving the country. The embassy application center was moderately crowded, but most people seemed to be American families establishing citizenship for their children born abroad.  It took all day to issue the passport.  I returned to the hotel around mid-afternoon.  Ryan and Eric had already left.  I finally arranged a flight to San Francisco on March 19.  

 I arrived in Philadelphia on March 19 12:00 AM EST. 


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