Japan Quake: 24-hours later

Mar 12, 2011

Steve Cornwell was on a train when the magnitude 8.9 earthquake hit Japan yesterday. He tells his story of coming out from underground and spending the night in a nearby school. Steve will take questions on what it is like on-the-ground in Tokyo now and reactions to the most recent news from the country.

Hi there, I have been asked to share my experience over the last 24 hours as far as the earthquake goes. Will look forward to answering any questions you have as I am able. 

I had just boarded a train to return to Tokyo when the earthquake hit. At first the train rocked back and forth and we thought it might be something normal...a settling in or something...but as it continued we knew something was wrong...

We jumped off the train and then the station started really shaking....we were about 2-3 stories under ground...it was hard to stand...we decided to get out of the station and made our way up the stairs which were shaking...when we got to the ticket wicket the lights went out (emergency lights kicked in right away)...we made it to the surface and were relieved and thankful for the engineers that made the station...really thought it was going to collapse on us.

There were a lot of people milling around outside the station...there is a bus terminal (not a building but a place where buses pick up and drop off passengers) and we thought of taking a bus to Tokyo...but as we were waiting to board (we were the next to get on) the bus driver said the highway was closed and so we could not return that way.  People were standing outside hotels, department stores, etc. and no one could enter any buildings.

Some of the tremors were quite strong and we had to hold on to a tree (small seedling) to make sure we were not going to fall down.  Later as we walked around we noticed that people had stopped eating and rushed out of restaurants...at a donut shop there were half eaten donuts left on plates. We heard that an elementary school had been designated as an emergency center so we headed there.

At the school people were waiting in classrooms. We went in to a room that normally is used to teach cooking and sewing.  We sat on stools at tables and waited.  It was good to get in from the elements as it had started to rain (a cold rain).  There was a kerosene heater.

We ended up spending the night in that room.  There were teachers who helped take care of everyone.  We got some crackers and bottled water for dinner (these were vacuumed packed and were made for emergencies). Later in the evening they passed out blankets and futons though many of us sat at the tables and napped there.  I had internet connection and received text messages from friends throughout the evening asking how I was.

There were incredible aftershocks every 15-20 minutes...some were ones I was used to...rocking back and forth but some were new ones I had not experienced before where the movement was up and down...

Who else was with you on the train and in the school? Did you stick together or not? Is there a leader in this kind of situation or how do people make decisions?

I was with two friends  and we stuck together til we made it back to Tokyo.  There were other people but I assume some were locals and so we did not see them after we left the train.  It was about 2-3 hours before we went to the school.  The leaders at the school were teachers of the school...I think they were trained to help (and the school was designated to be a evacuation center). But in the room some people sort of took the lead getting food to everyone and making sure everyone was taken care of.

A lot of people describe the time post-natural disaster as really chaotic. Was it loud? Were people screaming/crying? What was the emotional level there? Have things changed since yesterday?

One thing to clarify is I was not at the places that you are seeing on tv. While we had experienced quite a shock, there were no buildings collapsed, etc.  A few shops had false ceilings that had collapsed but it was not like what you are seeing on tv.  People were not crying/screaming...it was more a sense of helplessness as we could not leave the city...and also for me I knew it would be a longish ordeal before I got back where I wanted to be....it took 6 hours today to travel what normally is 45 minutes.

How did you still have an internet connection? Is Japan's infrastructure that good?

I was able to "borrow" an unsecured wifi connection. BUT it was hard to use cell phones...the system was overloaded...it took me hours to get a text message to my wife...and the same for her.  So no the infrastructure is not that good...it is not bad just not what it may have seemed when I first wrote...several of the business men had computers and flashdrives which got them wireless.

Were you on the Tsukuba Express? If so, I imagine newer systems like those have plenty of safety measures. What sort of safety precautions did you see in effect on Friday?

We were on the Tsukuba Express.  It had not left so we were sitting on it in the station. I did not really see any safety precautions other than the emergency lighting that came on...and then the staff were there keeping people from reentering the station.  That is not to say there weren't precautions in effect.  Today we heard that they were checking tracks (by walking along them--I am sure they had equipment as well)...so even in Tokyo things were slow as far as transportation goes...and the train we were on to go back to Tokyo moved at 25 kilometers a lot slower than it normally does.  It was not the Tsukuba Express. We took a bus and then a taxi to get to a station that had trains running...and it was crowded...like the movies show....

We were able to contact other friends/colleagues. Heard that one walked home in Tokyo (4 hours) and others stayed in the office.  A friend was on the 15 floor of a skyscraper in Shinjuku and it shook like a tree.  She ended up spending the night in a restaurant. Also convenience stores had long lines and sold out of everything....this was in Tokyo.  Where we were there were no stores open...and once we went to the school we did not leave.

What is happening now? What is the reaction of the people 24-hours later?

We went out to eat this evening and things seem to be getting back to normal in Tokyo.  Though there are little things...for example, a movie theatre canceled several of its last showings and we were going to go to a musical today and it was canceled (possibly the rest of its run because of damage in the theatre--this is speculation on my part..the run is canceled but the reason is not clear).  And another performance tomorrow has been canceled (Bluemen).  I also heard another colleague was stuck on the bullet train for 9 hours yesterday. I think people are in shock at the magnitude of the disaster.  There is concern about the nuclear reactor.  The Japanese news is all about the earthquake (which is not surprising)...Today's public transportation was like a normal business day as far as crowdedness...

Do people feel that they're getting good information from media and public officials about the extent of the damage, and in particular about the situation at the nuclear plants?

I think so.  As I mentioned earlier, I was out of the loop and did not know how bad the earthquake was.  But there is good information out there...this is a minor example, but at the school where we stayed, we were told what the transportation situation was this morning...what was not running and what was....however, initially there was little information coming from the Train Staff (understandably)...today there were more announcements about trains.

How do you see the following week unfolding? month? What will it take to get Japan back on its feet? (sorry, big questions...I know)

Great question but a tough one.  I don't know...I think it is very positive that Japan is accepting international help...I think a lot of things will take place...restore electricity and water...provide shelter and food....but there are entire towns that are just gone....I don't know how anyone recovers from that...Hopefully there will be some counseling services available...Japan has some experience from the Kobe Earthquake in 1995 so that will help.

How prepared is the INDIVIDUAL in Japan to face radiation (equipment, antidotes, directions)?

I don't think the average individual is very prepared for radiation. On the other hand many are prepared for earthquakes with water, flashlights, food, all in kits ready to take with them as needed.

Hi Steve - wondering where you are now and if you've been watching TV in Japan? What do you think about the nuclear reactor situation?

I am in Tokyo now and just catching up on the news (hard as that may be to understand) as I was out of touch for 24 hours.  I know a friend based in Tokyo went to her family home near Kobe because of the uncertainty around the nuclear reactor.  Just heard on the news that authorities are prepared to hand out iodine tablets.  Also, Kobe is about three hours from Tokyo by the bullet train.

What do you think about the danger of nuclear danger in Japan? Is there any chance for you and your team, or any other person to go away from there?

Unfortunately, I am relative uninformed about the dangers. Tomorrow I will go back to Osaka which is several 100 kilometers away.  I probably will not consider leaving the country though friends have offered to let me stay with them.  This is home so I doubt that lots of people (expats) will leave given what we know now.  But we all will be following this closely.

I hope what I have shared is helpful.  I have heard we will wrap this up.  Thanks for your questions and concern.

If you have a Japan story to share, 

Call us at (202) 643-9276 and leave a voicemail telling us what you saw.

E-mail us at tellus@washingtonpost.com.

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In This Chat
Steve Cornwell
On a business trip as a member of a service organization, Steve Cornwell was on a train from Tsukuba, Ibaraki ken prefecture, to Tokyo when the magnitude 8.9 earthquake hit Japan yesterday. From that train, he spent the last 24 hours making his way out from two stories underground (in a tunnel) and surviving a night of aftershocks in an elementary school.

Steve has lived in Japan since 1992 and moved to Osaka in 1995 right after the Kobe Earthquake. He is professor of English and Education at Osaka Jogakuin College and Professor in the Department of International and English Interdisciplinary Studies. He is also Director of Program, & Member of the Board of Directors, Japan Association of Language Teachers (JALT).
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