March 11, 2011. 2:46 p.m. Just a typical day. The day before my birthday, but I wasn't planning anything special. My girlfriend and I were going to plan a big three-way birthday party for the two of us and one her best friends, we all used to work together. Our birthdays are February, March, and April. So, nothing special planned, at least not right away.
I was on the subway line heading to work. As it approached Kita-Yobancho station, which translates as North 4th Avenue station, the emergency doors opened a fraction of second before the train came to a stop. It was so quick and occurred just as the train was making it's normal stop. I didn't think much of it, perhaps somebody leaned against the protective barrier that was installed just a year before because of new safety regulations. There was no alarm so I figured it was just the normal stop.
Then the shaking started. I was in an underground subway tunnel, with just a few lights in the rafters so there really wasn't much shaking or moving to be seen. I'd like to call it vibrations, but a good stereo system with great sub-woofers puts out some vibrations and this was nothing like that.
It was noisy. That's one of the things most people don't realize about a strong quake. Everything around for a few hundred kilometres is moving at the same time. If you're in your own apartment, you can hear the wall panels cracking and nails being driven out from within. If you're in a supermarket, you'll hear glass bottles or metal shelves clanging together like a possessed wind chime. If you're underground, it's just the deep roar of the earth and dust falling through cracked ceramic tiles like an old, abandoned mine.
Everyone panicked at first. The office ladies, or OLs as they call them in Japan, screamed. The salary men bolted out the door and up the stairs. I did, too, at first. I jumped out of the subway car and towards the stairs, and then the shaking became more violent. My instincts kicked in and I thought, if the subway tunnel collapses, the best place to be would be the subway car, so jumped back in and waited it out. I watched the lights, expecting the power to go out, and it did. The lights flickered then went dead.
It was the longest quake I've ever felt. A few minutes at least. And I was damned lucky that it happened just as the subway came to it's next station. I don't know what the safety procedure is like, but if the shaking had happened just two minutes earlier the car might have stopped halfway between stations leaving an entire train load of people trapped in the dark.
After it was over, everyone crammed through the narrow staircase. Since the power was out, the ticket gates were not functioning. Everyone hopped over and jogged up the stairs into the aftermath of a war zone. Hundreds of dazed salary men and OLs squeezed through the sidewalks, around smoking transformers, and between the shards of glass from broken windows and fallen lamp posts.
The street lights were out, and traffic was in gridlock. I saw one man with cuts on his fingers, probably from broken glass. To this point it is the only injury I have witnessed, other than what I've seen on TV.
The actual quaking was scary, but after it was all said and done, I felt pretty good. Actually, I though it was damned spectacular! I whipped out my cellphone camera and started taking pics of random damage and chaos.
All I wanted to do was get some pics and post them to Facebook. Most people were pretty calm and doing the same thing I was doing, documenting the entire situation in real time from every angle with their smartphones.
I've experience strong quakes before, a 6.9 and a 7.2. Both times they just shut the city down for a day while construction crews walk along the train tracks checking for damage. Lessons get cancelled for a day or two and everything goes back to normal rather quickly. I knew this was the strongest I'd ever experienced, but didn't think it would be much different from any of the others. So I decided to check in at the office of my other part-time job -- I have two -- which was just a few blocks away. I chatted with the receptionist who seemed pretty calm. Then I turned around and decided to walk to my girlfriend's house, who usually finishes work at 2 p.m. and would've been at home during the quake.
Then the sirens started, the military police raced down the street and the fighter jets and helicopters started to patrol the sky. Every building seemed to have some sort of damage, fallen tiles or awnings that collapsed. The window displays of small shops had fallen apart, vending machines were toppled, and water mains were broken and flooding the street. The cellphone network completely jammed up, as is usual after the first few minutes of a quake in Japan, but this time it would last for days.
I found my girlfriend standing in front of her house looking up at the sky. She saw me and waved, then jumped on me and cried. Her house was a mess. Most plates and ceramics in the kitchen were broken and the TV stand had fallen over on top of the heater table where she usually likes to take a nap. If the quake had happened at her usual nap time, she would have died, or so she believed. We collected her niece from the local elementary school, who also jumped at us and cried. We all went back home, waited for my girlfriend's sister to return home, lit up some candles and settled down into a nearly destroyed house to wait out the worst week of our lives.
With no power, no water, no gas, and only a spotty, jammed cell network, we frantically tried to contact everyone we could. My girlfriend tried to contact her parents without much luck, and I sent out an e-mail to my father from my cellphone, which I had never done before. It probably went into his junk box without knowing it, which set into motion a rather bizarre chain of news reports that listed me as a Canadian missing in Sendai for about two or three days. It was only resolved after a complicated Facebook networking co-operation to finally identify my e-mail address.
It wasn't until the next day that we learned about the tsunami, and the quake magnitude, an 8.8 eventually upgraded to a 9.0. My girlfriend received a message from her best friend, one-third of the three-way birthday. She lived in a northern coastal town called Ishinomaki. Her first message was: "I'm still alive." After that, all communication was cut off for a few days. We managed to get into contact with more friends and family, until finally we got a second message from my girlfriend's friend. She and her husband heard the tsunami siren and rushed to a co-workers house to escort him to safety. Together the three ran up a hill and watched the wave decimate the town. We haven't heard much from them since, other than secondhand Facebook information. They're still alive and doing well, likely staying in a shelter, along with 200,000 other people in different parts of northern Japan.
So I think the three-way birthday party is cancelled, at least for now. But I know it's a party I will never forget.
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