At 2.46pm on Friday, March 11, 2011 the office began to move. Earthquakes are common in Japan and usually begin with a jolt and then a few seconds of shaking before they subside again. I was in a meeting at the time with Paul and two others from McKinsey, a consultancy. Paul being relatively new to Japan was at first interested in the experience. He hadn’t been through a noticeable earthquake before having not felt the foreshock two days earlier.
Soon though, we all realized this was no ordinary earthquake. The heavy meeting table we were sitting at, and soon took shelter under, started to move violently around. Ceiling panels began to shake and we could hear them falling outside the door. Earthquake proof cabinets bolted to the walls sprang open and spilled their contents on the floor.
The earthquake had lasted for five minutes by the time the tremors started to subside. We looked out of the office and called if everyone was alright. We saw an entire floor of shocked staff, some in tears, everyone with the contents of their desks now on the floor around them. The standard wisdom immediately after an earthquake is to remain inside the building due to the danger injury from falling debris as you step outside. That is, unless you believe the building itself was no longer safe. With the ceiling caved in in places and cracks in concrete walls we took the decision to evacuate everyone as quickly as possible.
Clearing people from the far end of the floor, the fourth in a five-story building, we began to help staff towards the stairwells. One had recently broken his leg but refused all assistance and made his way with everyone else down the stairs. Another had left her mobile phone behind on her desk and was trying to work her way back against the tide to retrieve it. We convinced her to exit now and worry about her phone later. We cleared the third floor and then found chaos on the second where racking and samples of new apparel were now thrown around the room. We ensured everyone was out and moved on to the first floor where we found people had already left and were moving to the open parking areas outside the building.
Hurrying to the entrance we saw groups of people standing under the vast glass awning outside the building and virtually rugby tackled them as we moved them to safety. Better a little rain than several tons of glass falling on you. Then it struck us we’d forgotten to clear the top floor. Looking around at the number of people in the car park we reckoned they’d figure it out though and kept moving people away from the building.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, we had just experienced one of the largest earthquakes anywhere in history. This M9.0 had released ten times the power of all the earthquakes in Japan in the last hundred years. We looked around, many people were in shock, everyone trying their unresponsive phones. People were looking to us for guidance on what they should do next.
It was obvious we were going to have to close the office for the rest of the day and as it turned out we closed it for the following week too. We started to tell people to begin to make their way home as quickly as possible. If they lived too far to walk, find a hotel, we’d cover the cost; if they could find a taxi, we’d pay for that too. With the immediate closure of the rail and subway systems, many people realized they didn’t know how to get home. Living their lives on the subway system, they didn’t even know which way to walk.
Wham! At this point the first aftershock hit us, a 7.9, massive in its own right. Standing in the car park I watched as the fifth floor of the building swayed and was glad we’d made the decision to move outside.
At times like this the first thing you think about is family. The mobile phone system was already down, locked with millions of people trying to make calls to loved ones all at the same time. I tried to text Masami but this jammed too and I had no idea how my twelve-year old son, Kai, was. Thoughts of his school collapsing scream through my mind.
It was after nearly twenty minutes that I remembered he had his iPhone with him and that I could track it. The earthquake had struck ten minutes before the normal end of school. I searched for him and saw that he was on Meguro Dori, which meant he was on the school bus. If the school bus had survived that meant the school had survived and he was safe. It also meant that I knew to make my way home rather than to the school and that I could now focus on the several hundred people around me and not worry for a short while.
The relief with the knowledge that he was safe was immense and in the days that followed I sent a thank you message via a friend to Apple, it really had made a difference.
But I still couldn’t reach Masami.
It was March and still cold with a light rain falling. Letting everyone back in briefly to pick up coats and jackets for their journey home I went back to my office on the fourth floor. My desk had moved thirty centimeters from the wall and had only been stopped from going further by a cabinet moving in the opposite direction. I had tried calling and texting from my iPhone but nothing was transmitting at this point and wouldn’t for the next few days.
The corporate email was still working and I sent a message to our head office in Germany to let them know we’d suffered a major earthquake and were evacuating the office. For some reason, as we’d initially cleared the building, I had started to video the events as they unfurled. This short video was later distributed quickly around the world so that the Group could see the devastation for themselves.
I’d been in Japan for the Kobe disaster, a M6.8 that had razed the city in 1995. I’d had friends who had been through it and had later talked to me about the experience. I knew the phones wouldn’t be working any time soon and that the rail and subways would stay closed until they could be thoroughly checked.
I also knew that the highways across Tokyo would be immediately closed for emergency inspection, if they were still standing at all. This meant the roads were going to very soon hit gridlock and using a car was going to be a liability. At this point we didn’t know if the highway system had survived inside the capital but we could see dark clouds of smoke rising from the direction of the port and the main oil terminals.
We urged staff to start the walk home as quickly as possible. Over the next few days we received many emails from people who had taken the advice, left immediately and been able to return safely to their homes by evening or had found hotel rooms to stay. We also received many messages from people saying they wished they’d taken our advice and that by waiting to begin their journeys they had been stranded for the night. We were just glad they were safe.
Hotels in Tokyo started to fill quickly and many responded by offering options to double up in rooms or provided blankets to people sheltering in lobbies. The scale of what was happening around us was beginning to become clear and we realized things wouldn’t be normal for a while.
Once the car parks had been emptied of everyone who wanted to leave, I started to walk home with MDR, a friend from the office who lived in the same direction. It was only eight kilometers and I walked it regularly simply for the exercise.
The good news was that we were seeing relatively little structural damage. Later though we found out that liquefaction had caused major destruction across northern Tokyo. Liquefaction is a deadly side effect of earthquakes where ground water is forced to the surface by the shaking, turning the earth to a viscous liquid. Buildings sink into the ground and collapse and storm drains float to the surface being pipes filled with nothing more than air.
I had walked the ground in Kobe and seen ten story buildings lying in the streets. We seemed to have been saved that fate. At this point, where we were in central Tokyo, the infrastructure was relatively unscathed. In fact, the closest I came to harm as we walked back was when a construction truck reversed quickly into the road and nearly took out a group of pedestrians, including myself.
Halfway home, as we past the National Stadium, I remembered I had Skype on my phone and that Kai, if home by now, was very likely to have his Skype open on his computer. I tried to contact him and to my great relief, connected and heard his voice. Everything changes in a crisis and the first thing I heard him say was the dogs are safe. I smiled and asked if he was OK and where was his mother.
After confirming he was OK, and that Masami was also home and fine, I continued the journey in a much more positive frame of mind. However, these feelings were soon dampened as we walked along and saw crowds standing outside shop windows. The stores had turned television screens around to follow the news coverage and let people see what was happening as the first images of the tsunami were broadcast by helicopter. We watched in stunned silence as the black wave chased tiny cars along roads and slowly swallowed each up in its path. We knew we were watching people die and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Walking on through Shibuya, the central district of Tokyo near my home, we were met with waves of thousands of people, stranded and trying to make their own way home. Each day over two million people pass through Shibuya Station and it was now closed to all rail traffic. Most people simply had no choice and they began the very long queue for a bus which itself was going to be caught in the city gridlock soon if it could move at all.
Millions were now walking. Shibuya is not just crowded but full. There is no space between the thousands waiting in line for the buses. None will be coming and none will be leaving any time soon. Train lines are closed and road is their only way home. I watch from a footbridge for a few minutes and wonder how long they’ll have to wait.
Many have already decided it’s time to move. As the crowd leaves en masse they reach a crossing and everyone stops for the red light. No pushing. It turns green and the wave of people slowly moves off together. I wonder how many times that would be repeated this night.
I was fortunate living only an hour and a half walk from the office. I heard many stories later of friends walking twenty hours in business shoes or heels and the buses from the outer lying schools not being able to return children to their homes until the next morning. Yokohama International School enacted its emergency plan and placed children with local families for the night. One outlying international school started the long trek back into Tokyo only to be caught in the gridlock until morning.
The house survived without serious damage. Kai had moved the dog cages under the table so they’ll be safe and he’s found our cycling helmets, the best protection we have. Although it sounds a cliché from a disaster movie, Masami had actually been halfway through a hair appointment and came running out of the building only to see the cranes on top of the half constructed Hikarie building bending to the point of collapse.
I had a beer with MDR and we manage to Skype a message to his wife that he’s safe and will be home soon. He helps me right the television and then takes his leave.
An email arrives from my parents. They’ve heard about the earthquake and wonder if we’re OK as I haven’t contacted them. Normally if there is a report of an earthquake in Japan I’d call and let them know we’re all safe. This time there was still no telephone. I Skype and get through, telling them not to go to video mode. The networks will never take it.
That evening Skype became the lifeline. Whilst the phone systems were down, we found later than anything based on Internet communication still worked. Even Skype on my phone worked as this transmitted through the data networks rather than the voice ones. It allowed us not just to contact family outside Japan and reassure them we were still alive but also to start the process of coordinating our response to the unfolding crisis.
The first messages start to arrive asking if we’re ok. Offers of help but what can anyone do. Hugs from Vancouver, concern from the UK. Friends from school and university reach out, we’re in their thoughts.
That first night we sit watching the television with our shoes lined up at the front door for a quick exit if necessary. My earthquake bags are ready, one inside the house and another one outside in case the building collapses. We watch giant whirlpools forming off the coast and ocean freighters sitting on buildings where they’d been casually dropped, their final resting place until they would be cut up with acetylene torches months later.
Fire was spreading across cities, something that seemed to go against the concept of the wall of water we were seeing. The first reports of deaths start to appear in the news broadcasts. A body here, two more there. Then a jump, the fire service in Minami-Sanriku reports hundreds of bodies lying in the streets. We knew that this would just be the beginning. And we still hadn’t heard of power station called Fukushima. We sleep fully dressed, the hallway lights on. Wham!
Clearing the building
Clearing the building