Saturday, March 12, 2011
The Earthquake story
This post might be a bit lighter on the fun side, but to try and give you all a picture of how it all went down for me during this turbulent and shaky days (pun intended).
Just before the quake at 14:45 something, I was over on the other side of the office, talking to one of the sales promotion people, a girl/lady I have a friendly relationship with since many years back, borrowing the seat next to her chatting a little about an upcoming event and how to deal with it. As we were talking she got interrupted by a phone call from a rep, so I sat and chilled out while she talked to the guy on the phone. Then it started shaking, first the shaking was quite mild and we looked at each other and around the office as people started to stand up, look around and do the "do you feel it? Is it an earthquake?". The initial shaking wasn't that big, it gradually increased and after a few seconds I realized that this is a big one and the biggest one I had experienced (on the Japan 1-7 scale, I've been in the middle of a "strong 5" so anything below that doesn't really scare me much). People in the office also started to realize this and me and some other people started getting under the desks and I told her to "hang up now and get under your desk, this could be serious".
Some thoughts and observations that I remember was that I was thankful when I noticed that the sales manager's desk (which I was under since he was out of the office) had the "earthquake kit" (rations, blankets, flashlight etc.) under it where I was huddling but I also realized that I did not have my mobile phone with me so would have problems contacting anyone if I would get stuck, the third thought was that at least I would be stuck close to a friendly person I know. Me and the sales promotion lady looked at each other during the quake and the exchange was limited to "これはやばいでしょう” and "ええ、やばいね" (roughly translated to "this is serious stuff" and "yeah, really scary").
It's hard to say now in hindsight how long the big quake actually lasted, but I would guess that the big shakes went on for 30-60 seconds and when it started to calm down people started to come up from under their desks, look around and some people were laughing nervously on how stuff and the building kept shaking. The building we are in is one of the newer buildings that adsorbs the shock through moving with the shaking, so it keeps swaying for quite a long time after the real shake has subsided, giving a feeling of sea-sickness.
First, people were a little at loss as to what to do, I quickly went back to my desk and immediately tried to call Mrs. Sunshine to check that they were ok, but when there was no reception I realized immediately that this was a really serious quake; considering how much it was shaking in Tokyo I realized that it must be much much worse at the epicenter. The office Internet was working, so I went on to yahoo to check out their earthquake info page which is usually updated extremely quickly. For a moment I went a bit cold when I saw that it was a "7" at the epicenter on the Japanese 1-7 scale of severity since that would mean on par or worse than the Hanshin earthquake in 1995 and claimed over 5,000 lives.
Some people in the office still were laughing and didn't seem to understand the seriousness, joking casually "Salaryman, you look a bit white in the face". Ignoring the comments, I finally managed to get an e-mail from the mobile phone off to Mrs. Sunshine to tell her that I'm ok, asking about her and the baby. Since I knew that they very likely were at home and our house would be comparatively safe, I wasn't extremely worried, but in a situation like this you still want confirmation.
Then another big quake came and this time people reacted a lot more focused, putting on the helmets and reacting more seriously (this is the time I had the exchange with Cpt. Awkward in the previous post). People now started to get a bit more worried, trying to call and mail family, friends and colleagues to check that everyone was safe and the general affairs manager responsible for disaster control started to give some directions on putting on helmets, repeating the safety routine and evacuation spots close to the office.
During the time 14:45 - 16:00, my main focus was trying to get an understanding of the situation and getting in touch with the family. After about an hour, a mail from Mrs. Sunshine finally came through that they were fine but some stuff in the house had fallen down. She attached this picture from the computer room (amazingly the computer seems to be working fine). The TV in the office also got started and the Tsunami information started to come in and people were discussing on how to possibly get home as all the train lines were completely shut down with no news on when they could get up running again. During this time there also was a constant stream of smaller aftershocks keeping up the direness of the situation.
After the worst Tsunami had hit most areas and the situation was a bit clearer, most people started making plans on how to possibly try to get home. The people living in central Tokyo mostly were determined to walk home, but the Salaryman household is too far off to try and do a hike so me and one of the Finance guys who lives quite close to my area decided to try and get a cab together to get home. A few people (among them, of course, Cpt. Awkward) had already decided to stay the night in the office, and although that would have been a safe option, I wanted to get home to the family.
As me and the colleague were walking out in the Tokyo night we quickly realized that getting a cab would be next to impossible. Walking the streets of Tokyo we could also very quickly see that there was basically no real damages in inner city Tokyo and most restaurants and shops were business as usual. Huge amounts of people were walking (probably trying to walk home, find a taxi, bus or hoping that the trains would start) but the atmosphere wasn't nervous and people seemed in good spirits. Realizing that catching a cab might not be completely realistic, we decided to walk to the Tokyo station in the hope that the trains would get up and running since the shaking was subsiding and getting to a big hub would be the best chance with all the available lines (some would inevitably start running faster than others).
After walking for an hour we reached the station and with no news on when and if the trains would get up and running, we went to a small restaurant in the area to get some food and beer while we waited. Basically all the food had been sold out, but beer was thankfully available and sitting down chatting having a beer basically made the whole situation feel a lot less surreal. After an hour (around 8PM now) there was an announcement that the JR lines likely would not get up and running during the night and that the subway was unsure but not likely to resume operations for several hours. With the train option out of the question, low likelihood of catching a cab and all hotels being booked to the brim, we decided that the most comfortable way would be to get back to the office and camp there during the night.
The streets were still bustling with people and by chance we ran into Mr. Pot-Belly who had been hiking his way into Tokyo with a peon to get to their homes in central Tokyo, so we shared some stories and then continued our separate ways. At around 10 PM we arrived back at the office where things were calm with only 2 other people left (incl. of course Cpt. Awkward), working as if nothing had happened. We shared out stories, checked up on the latest info online and tried to relax a bit.
Around 11PM things had calmed down a bit outside with less people moving about and me still not wanting to give up on possibly sleeping at home with the family, I decided to venture out for a bit again to see if I could catch a cab for me and the Finance guy. Now the crowds were considerably less and the people out on the streets were those who were a bit drunk and not wanting a small thing such as an earthquake to ruin their Friday night drinking sessions. For almost an hour I tried to get a cab but with no luck, again resigning to the idea of staying in the office I started to head back and by chance I ran into an available cab willing to drive way out to Chiba.
After some quick SMSs (the phones still didn't work properly) I converged with the finance guy and got in the cab. I realized that it would take longer than usually since the highways were closed and a lot of people were trying to find their way out of Tokyo, but the traffic jams were horrific. We probably could have walked half the distance faster as we crawled forward with a taxi driver who needed to pee every 30 min (running out to pee during the congestion). After 4 hours we were finally out of the Tokyo area and with slightly less heavy traffic, dropping of my colleague first and then driving for an additional two hours to get to the Salaryman HQ. (the taxi driver and our conversations is a completely different post since that was also quite surreal and funny in hindsight).
At 7 AM I finally found myself safely at home checking on the family and house.
That was the basic story of the big earthquake. As I write this the shaking comes and goes a bit, but so small compared to the ones yesterday that I hardly even pay attention. There are many surreal/funny stories hidden in this whole event and I will probably dive into those little by little, but to give you a feeling how this event happened. On the whole, it was a quite good "wake up call" for me to start stocking up on supplies and get some safety plans in order for the family in case the next time, the epicenter is closer to Tokyo.
Latest news are 1,600 dead or missing and I fear that most people missing will end up in the casuality section since they very likely were swept away by the Tsunami. The final count will also increase with the less direct victims. Really scary stuff.