Skip to content

Shaken Then Stirred: Sendai Quakes, part 1

March 16, 2011

If you know me at all, you know I love to fly, especially transpac or other long haul flights where I can disappear into the void — a tube of silence separated from the outside world at 550 MPH and 35,000 to 38,000 feet.

The airport bus dropped my friend Jim at Terminal 2 for AA, then swung around to Terminal 1 South to drop me at UAL.  I checked in quickly (no waiting) and stopped by the gift shop to pick up a few things which this trip’s itinerary hadn’t allowed earlier.

Tagami was sitting in the green chair on the left!

I was scheduled to depart Narita at 1700, so had a leisurely two hours to enjoy United’s spacious Red Carpet Club near gate 31 for some comestibles and email time.


It started as a silent rolling wave.  Not a long wave, but an almost imperceptible wobble or rotation under your chair which — if short in duration — could be attributed to a large truck or some nearby construction.  I exchanged glances with a traveler sitting across from me, and as it did not stop said, “3.0” with the nonchalance of a Bay Area girl. Within 10 seconds the undulations grew slowly more urgent as the room began to rattle with the nervous chatter of porcelain, glass and cutlery.  “4.3”, I offered “…uh oh, uh oh, UH OH….this is a lot bigger!”  Bigger, and certainly longer than anything I had experienced before.  It. Just. Wasn’t. Stopping.

The lounge swung wide and shuddered.  The building creaked, groaned and swayed.  It screeched, it jolted, it swirled in strange leftover eddies of vibration.  It was dizzying and thrilling and horrifying at the same time.  It was completely unpredictable.  The swinging grew more intense — I’d say a swing ranging from 18″ to 24″ from center running NW to SE with rotations and swoops thrown in unexpectedly — then settled to shaking and shuddering, only to begin the wide swings once again as the shaking intensified: terra firma was bucking and crashing and I hoped she did not want to take my building down with her.  A fine dust shook from the ceiling near me, and the artwork hung as room dividers on monofilament looked as if they were capable of  taking off heads, yet passengers sat stunned and frozen beneath them.

We were sure we had just experienced at least 7.0, and our phones quickly confirmed a “7.9”, which an hour later became an 8.9.

"We eagerly shared what we could glean" iPhone Screen Capture

Phones and email didn’t work, but I was able to squeeze out some SMS messages before the system failed. Passengers shared phones and information and advice on how to create a crush zone which could save your life!

The aftershocks were frequent and quite strong, by the time the second one started I was on the floor with a small cache of food — my back to the wall between the chair and the end table with my head low so that if the ceiling came crashing down the furniture would take the impact and I would have a breathing space.  In between these frightening events, which just kept coming, the ground crew advised that all passengers stay away from the windows as some folks had gone running to the glass to see what was happening outside!

The airport finally decided that it was time to evacuate the building, so about 13,000 of us were directed to the emergency exits onto the tarmac.  The sun was already low in the sky, so we huddled in clusters near gate 34 waiting for instruction.  Fortunately, I met a nice couple — Virginia and Bill from Hawaii — as we formed a little tribe for the next 21 hours.

Gathering on the tarmac near gate 34

We had no idea how bad it was


Folks were quite calm.  The sun was going down, so we were herded west to gate 31, which was not much warmer and was unfortunately in the path of a 777 and between two structures — not a place I wanted to be if there was another big earthquake.  Oh, and it started to rain.  Someone gained access to the terminal to use the facilities and we all just started pouring in to get somewhere warm.  The airport agent kept telling us that the building had not been inspected that we were entering at our own risk, but after several hours in the cold it did not seem to matter to us.  Before long ground crew from United and Delta and airport personnel began distributing water and rations — Ritz Crackers!

Amazingly, janitorial services and airport routines continued around us, and all was calm. Announcements followed:  our section of the airport was safe, but don’t go upstairs (yet); all flights cancelled, check with your individual airline in the morning; roads closed and no trains, buses or taxis were running.  Stay put.  A parade of uniforms marched in — again, the livery of many different airlines — carrying blankets, water, and more Ritz crackers.

A group gathered at one of the check in counters to charge laptops while others tried to see what was happening on the news (the Tsunami) or slept.

Watching early news reports

Rations Arrive

Airline blankets arrive

A very somber slumber party

We continued to feel aftershocks so it was an uneasy night.  More water arrived, then bananas, maki sushi  and musubi (a triangle of sushi rice with a salty plum or something else inside and wrapped with seaweed  TOTAL comfort food, if you’re Japanese).

It was 1:00 AM and I chatted with a fellow from Mexico City and a woman from Beijing while our phones and laptops charged, and at 3:00 AM the airport found some thick green pads, which made sleeping on the floor okay, and was a vast improvement over the corrugate, if you were lucky enough to have found some anyway.

Maki Sushi from one of the airlines

Neighbor at Gate 28

The next morning at about 0600 the tribe — Virginia, Bill and I — packed up and moved closer to UAL on the level above us.  We camped near the lounge, then found a quiet corner near electricity and bathrooms. It seemed likely that we had another day and a half at the airport, and then I got a call from Jim that he was busting me out of terminal 1.

Moving Camp

TOMORROW:  How I was stirred.

We really had no idea how bad things were .  We experienced some uncertainty and discomfort, but we were safe, warm and dry with food and water and a high probability of departure in a few days.  It was nothing like the grim reality for the villages along the coast north of us, some still isolated and without food, water or electricity.


The US State Department has vetted and issued a list of 28 ways you can donate to Japan’s recovery.  Click this link for detailed information: InterAction Members Support Japan Tsunami Response

71 Comments leave one →
  1. Margie Walter permalink
    March 16, 2011 5:30 AM

    OMG Liz…. what an experience. So glad you’re fine. Amazing to read what you went through.

  2. March 16, 2011 5:37 AM

    Dear Liz;

    Incredible were you have passed through and to be there leaving one of the worst earth catastrophes of our history, we are in touch with our friends in Tokio trying to support and warm them
    I am much looking forward to talk to you, warm regards from Spain

  3. March 16, 2011 6:16 AM

    Liz, thanks for this illuminating series. Next career stop, NPR or CNN. You’re such a fine writer.

  4. March 16, 2011 6:41 AM

    Extraordinary articulation of a remarkable journey. I am so glad you are OK. Our employees have mostly escaped any direct impact but unfortunately several of our worldwide Japanese employee population have relatives they have been unable to reach in the affected areas.

    I continue to be amazed by your incredible writing skills, no matter how often I am able to read your articles. You clearly should be writing for a living or at least as a lucrative sideline. In the meantime, I will enjoy the opportunity to bask in the glow of your illuminating prose.

  5. vidda chan permalink
    March 16, 2011 6:48 AM

    So glad you are okay. Quite the story! And you’re quite the writer!

  6. Ellen Multari permalink
    March 16, 2011 7:37 AM

    Liz —

    This is a remarkably well-written account of a harrowing ordeal. We are so glad you are safe. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I fear that if this had occurred in an American airport your story would have been much different. Take care.

  7. Jaynet Tagami permalink
    March 16, 2011 8:43 AM

    Photo Journalism at it’s best and so grateful that you are home safe.

  8. Maryann Juran permalink
    March 16, 2011 9:34 AM

    A very interesting read & written so well , glad you were in a safe place & are now safely home.

  9. March 16, 2011 1:44 PM

    Must’ve been so scary for you- I am an ex-California resident and have been through many an earthquake- but nothing at that level. Good for you for staying calm and making giid friends amidst chaos. I’m glad you guys are safe!

  10. March 16, 2011 1:54 PM

    I can’t even imagine experiencing all of this — and the vacuum you must have felt like you were in, initially at least. So glad you’re safe and praying for those who have been caught up in the devastation…

  11. March 16, 2011 4:46 PM

    Hope you’re alright now. The television said aftershocks would still be felt for a year. You are so brave.

  12. March 16, 2011 5:55 PM

    What timing to have been there and so glad to hear you are okay. Yes, California earthquakes were just a warm-up! Thanks for sharing a way to help. So many lost so much.

  13. Sheila Chambers permalink
    March 16, 2011 6:00 PM


    Your story-telling is captivating. Proud to know you! So glad you are safe.

    There is much the world can learn from Japan’s honorable culture and it’s dignified, organized response to this enormous disaster. Quite different from H. Katrina.

  14. March 16, 2011 6:51 PM

    I felt terrfied as I read your description of the quake. How scary it must have been for everyone in Japan.

  15. March 16, 2011 7:17 PM

    So glad you are okay. Quite the story!

  16. March 16, 2011 7:37 PM

    That would have been an experience of a life time… Good that you were at a safe place…..

  17. Cams permalink
    March 16, 2011 7:44 PM

    writing is your line of field. You know how to express your feeling, thoughts and emotions for the readers. And you are so blessed cos you were not harmed and your home safe and sound.
    If I will there at your side I really don’t know how would I react to that experienced that was happening.

  18. March 16, 2011 8:39 PM

    Glad you are okay. What a way to get to be FP!

  19. March 16, 2011 8:41 PM

    nice account, thanks for keep everyone informed on what it was like to be an actual part of it.



  20. March 16, 2011 9:11 PM

    This was a great story. I am happy that you are okay and I pray for the ones who did not make it. keep posting

  21. gaijinass permalink
    March 16, 2011 11:05 PM

    It was a nasty nasty Shaker to be sure. We are still having them, a couple per day here in Tokyo. Could really due without that all other things considered.

  22. March 17, 2011 12:38 AM

    Dear Liz,

    This is such an incredible article. As I was reading every word, I felt like I was exactly where you were, in between the shakes and aftershocks of Japan. Very well written, indeed this is an experience of a lifetime, I praise God you’re safe. I’ll be updating myself with your stories.

  23. March 17, 2011 1:53 AM

    Greetings from Hungary! 🙂

  24. March 17, 2011 2:28 AM

    It’s not often that a first-hand account is written so directly and engagingly. I am glad to hear that you and those in the airport were alright. And it sounded as though the airport treated you all very well.
    Thank you for sharing and for including a link to help people give. I know I will be clicking.

  25. March 17, 2011 2:44 AM

    Really feel sad to see all that is happening in Japan. Just pray to God that all should end well.

  26. March 17, 2011 4:16 AM

    Quite the story.

  27. tats23 permalink
    March 17, 2011 4:49 AM

    thanks god your safe….you have a very nice writing,very interesting to read…

  28. kevinmorente permalink
    March 17, 2011 5:11 AM

    It’s good to read something like your entry. We had a glimpse of what had happened there. The horrifying pictures and videos at Sendai still lingers. Thanks for the insights.

  29. March 17, 2011 5:26 AM

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, your writing is an excellent as many other bloggers have already commented. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. 🙂

  30. March 17, 2011 8:01 AM

    What a fascinating post and so eloquently written, thank you for sharing!

  31. March 17, 2011 9:33 AM

    Wow. What an incredible experience. Thank you for sharing. Glad the tribe is ok. Congrats on Freshly Pressed.

  32. March 17, 2011 10:12 AM

    Nice Blog, I enjoyed reading your post.

    Jared Winn

  33. March 17, 2011 10:36 AM

    Thanks for sharing. Thoughts and prayers have been given and more are needed by reading the recent news reports of nuclear fallout. Hope you made it home safe!

  34. March 17, 2011 10:47 AM

    Great Read. Glad you made it home safe.
    So sad what’s happened over there.

  35. March 17, 2011 12:16 PM

    Glad your ok

  36. March 17, 2011 1:29 PM

    Thank you so much for this report. Glad to hear that you are ok.

  37. March 17, 2011 2:12 PM

    i’m glad u’r ok! i’m with people of Japan. 日本電力 !

  38. March 17, 2011 2:36 PM

    What an experience! I have never been in an earthquake before… it must have been surreal.

  39. March 17, 2011 2:39 PM

    Glad you are safe; appreciate you taking the time to recount your experience so eloquently.

  40. March 17, 2011 4:16 PM

    Wow! What a harrowing experience! Glad you’re safe!

  41. March 17, 2011 9:17 PM

    Thanks for sharing

  42. March 17, 2011 9:21 PM

    I felt terrfied as I read your description of the quake

  43. March 17, 2011 10:48 PM

    Thanks for writing about the harrowing experience, but even more thanks for the donation links. I just made a donation to Save the Children in Emergency fund for Japan.

  44. Crystal permalink
    March 17, 2011 11:58 PM

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  45. brenda permalink
    March 18, 2011 3:00 AM

    it’s really great that you are sharing this and also sharing how the rest can help. thanks! 🙂 and glad that you are well 🙂

  46. March 18, 2011 3:22 AM

    interesting story and thanks God you safe


  47. March 18, 2011 3:55 AM

    insane! glad you’re ok.
    you have quite the tale to tell for years to come..

  48. March 18, 2011 4:58 AM

    insane! glad you’re ok

  49. ted permalink
    March 18, 2011 11:51 PM

    I expect to see this entry amongst your memoirs, Sis.
    Maslow’s needs deftly illustrated.
    Makes me want to buy stock in Nabisco ($KFT)!
    So glad you are home safe.

  50. March 21, 2011 5:25 PM

    Liz what an experience !
    Glad to here you are safe x

  51. April 6, 2011 10:59 PM

    Liz, thanks for this illuminating series. Next career stop, NPR or CNN. You’re such a fine writer.

  52. May 23, 2013 11:19 AM

    Thanks to my father who informed me regarding this blog, this weblog is really

  53. June 1, 2013 7:07 AM

    Hi mates, how is everything, and what you would like to say about this paragraph, in my view its in fact awesome in
    favor of me.


  1. Shaken Then Stirred: Sendai Quakes, part 1 (via Tagami Food, Wine & Travel) « Too Frankness!
  2. Shaken Then Stirred: Sendai Quakes, part 1 (via Tagami Food, Wine & Travel) | siliconwelltech
  3. UNR study: Lessons learned from 2008 Wells quake | Natural Disasters
  4. Japan « Expat Bostonians
  5. Bloggers Who Covered the Biggest News Stories of 2011 — Blog —
  6. Bloggers Who Covered the Biggest News Stories of 2011 |
  7. Mie mi se pare foarte slab (Top WORDPRESS 2011) « BLOGcatCHINA
  8. Bloggers Who Covered the Biggest News Stories of 2011 | Texas Lawyer Journal
  9. Bloggers Who Covered the Biggest News Stories of 2011 « GRArktos
  10. » Bloggers Who Covered the Biggest News Stories of 2011
  11. Bloggers Who Covered the Biggest News Stories of 2011 | Peter Nolan
  12. Bloggers Who Covered the Biggest News Stories of 2011 |
  13. Bloggers Who Covered the Biggest News Stories of 2011 | WP Resource
  14. Riveting Blogging Report of the Japan Earthquake « muckingbarn
  15. Riveting Blogging Report of the Japan Earthquake « muckingbarn
  16. Top news stories of 2011 | Lightly Salted
  17. Bloggers Who Covered the Biggest News Stories of 2011 « What's Hot in Singapo
  18. The Spring of 800 Earthquakes « Tagami Food, Wine & Travel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: