March 11th, 2011: A day to remember in Japan

An aerial view of damage to Sukuiso, Japan, a week after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the area. DYLAN MCCORD/U.S. NAVY PHOTO
An aerial view of damage to Sukuiso, Japan, a week after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the area. DYLAN MCCORD/U.S. NAVY PHOTO

March 11th, 2011: A day to remember in Japan

by Edward Marczewski
Stripes Okinawa

In the early afternoon of March 11th of 2011, Japan was rocked by a 9.1 magnitude earthquake that caused widespread damage across the country. The Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami that followed devastated the nation. Tens of thousands of people died. I was a lucky one. But I have a story tell, one that many can relate to.

I was teaching English in the beautiful city of Tama. I remember it was exactly 2:46 p.m. and I had just completed my first afternoon lesson.  I was recording my information when the lights in the classroom went out. 

I immediately got up and went to the school counselor and asked, “why did you turn off the lights?” The school counselor, standing near her desk with a seat cushion over her head, she replied in a scared voice, “I didn’t turn off the lights.” 

All the electric power in Tama City and some surrounding areas was disrupted. This loss of power (Denki in Japanese) is an important aspect that effects this story. The four students, which were all women, were also covering their heads with pillows. At first, I thought it was some kind of a joke. Then I realized the building was shaking. I then said, “Oh, I guess we are having an earthquake.” 

I didn’t think much of this at that time, because I had experienced lots of tremors before and thought this will soon be over in a matter of seconds or so. They never last too long. We were on the 3d floor of an ancient building, which was probably not within current standards.  All the ladies and the school counselor looked at me and asked, “what shall we do?”

Not an ordinary quake

The way the building was swaying told me that we should exit this place.  Besides, something didn’t feel normal because the shaking hadn’t stopped and at least one minute had passed.

Just then I heard screaming. I looked out the front window of the school. On the first floor was a beauty parlor. It was both humorous and scary to see two women, still with curlers in their hair and cloth robes running across the street, waving their hands and screaming in terror.

 I heard other people also screaming in the distance. Now my instinct told me that we should depart the old building and we began to run down the stairs to the street level. When we got outside I began clinging to a concrete telephone pole, which provided me a feeling of safety.  And then I noticed there was a chain. One student was clinging to me and it followed on back as all four students and myself were attached to this pole.   

I said to the student nearest me, “You know what, it’s been shaking too long because we’ve had time to have a small conversation with each other.” The shaking hadn’t stopped yet. (The quake was magnitude 9.1 and lasted approximately 6 minutes.) I also recall the feeling of the power of the quake, this was no tremor or temporary little jolt.  This was the real thing. Many people that were here had never seen this kind of quake in their life.  And probably if you were not here in 2011, you have not felt the power of such a quake. 

I was watching as the street seemed to slowly separate from the curb. This is called liquification. Soil liquification occurs when saturated soil loses strength in response to applied stress such as shaking during an earthquake. Some areas in Chiba were greatly affected by liquification.           

Connecting with loved ones     

The time now was approximately 10:55 p.m. I finally was able to contact my wife. I must have called her phone 100 times. It was about 7 hours of hearing a busy signal. So, prepare for this and remember. During a large earthquake in Japan or anywhere, everyone will overload the phone system and you won’t be able to call your loved ones.

At about 11 p.m. there was a mad rush to the train station. Someone translated to me that one train would be running but only traveling as far as Nagatsuta, a kind of big city a few stops down the Denentoshi train line. Of course, I crammed into this train with hopes of getting closer to my flat in Machida. We all got out at Nagatsuta with the idea that we might get a quick taxi or bus home. I didn’t really count, but to me it looked like the line for the bus or taxi was well over 100 people waiting. So, I decided to walk. 

I didn’t have a smartphone in 2011. They were just starting to become available, so I had no GPS. I went to a police booth and got directions in Japanese on how to get to Machida. I made believe I could understand and kept saying “hai,” which means yes in Japanese. The policeman pointed out directions on how to walk back to Machida from Nagatsuta. I took some photos with my cellular phone and smiled and said “arigatou gozaimasu,” thank you in Japanese.

In trouble

In my gut, I knew I was in trouble. I departed the police booth as though I was fully in control and knew where I was going. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. Literally, I was scared. If you will, imagine people walking in the night with their heads seeming to face forward and sort of a strange, eery energy expelling from their bodies. That’s what I felt as I ventured into the Nagatsuta night street by myself. 

I tried as hard as I could to walk parallel to the JR Yokohama train line. I kept it to the side of my eye as I trekked down the road. But then I came to a brick wall. The street turned abruptly to the right and I lost complete sight of the train tracks. Again, I kept on walking as though I knew where I was going. As I mentioned earlier in this writing, the power was out in Tama City and some surrounding areas. So, doing things like crossing the street in an intersection could be quite challenging and dangerous. 

Some intersections were manned by the Metropolitan Police Department. Finally, they had something important to do. Japan is such a peaceful country that mostly the police are like mall security guards. 

Back to the story. I finally got to an area where power was either not disrupted or was restored. The feeling of seeing lights in the street gave me a feeling of relief and hope. Then to my surprise I saw a taxi and yelled “taxi” in English like I would in New York. I’m from Brooklyn. The taxi driver stopped. This guy must have known some English. 

Anyway, there I was in a taxi, my feet screaming in pain, but I was on my way to Machida. So, there I was in a taxi finally moving towards home. But after only about 3 minutes of driving, we came upon a traffic jam. We remained in one place for what seemed like 45 minutes, even though the taxi meter was still climbing in cost. So, I decided to get out and start walking again after I paid the driver 7,000 yen (about $65).  By the way, he only drove me about three miles.

As I walked, I soon started seeing familiar areas, so I knew I was getting close to home. I hadn’t lived in Machida that long, so I wasn’t familiar with very much of the area, but then saw the 7-11 that was located near my home. Finally, after 8 hours, I had returned to my home. I hugged my wife and petted my dogs and was so relieved to be home. 

After the quake

However, more difficult times were to come.  The next day there was no electricity in Machida. The water was not potable.  Delivery trucks had not made it into the city, so food and bottled water were not available. I fought over a loaf of bread with an old lady. People scrambled for batteries at Daiso. I waited 6 hours for gasoline.

Occasionally, my wife and I took the dogs and we would sit in our car outside to escape the possibility of our building collapsing. Aftershocks went on for about one month. Seemed like we had a good shake every day. Of course, the quake and tsunami that followed pummeled Fukushima and surrounding areas. But we felt it across the country. I share this story so you won’t become complacent. A big quake will likely strike again, so stay active and prepare your plan of action. 

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