Shaken Then Stirred: Sendai Quakes, part 1
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.
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.
PART 1 – SHAKEN
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
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