Donna Britt: My earthquake story

By Donna Britt - bio | email

Our earthquake story actually begins two days before Japan's strongest earthquake in recorded history.

March 10, 2011, we were in our favorite museum of the trip, Miraikan aka Museum of Emerging Science and Technology. Mark had run into the only person in Tokyo we found who spoke proficient English. She was a volunteer in the tectonic geology section. She apparently wanted to practice her English.

Mark was taking notes because he wanted to explain what he saw later to Louie because it's the field that Lou's grandpa worked in all his life. The woman explained that they had numerous sensors for earthquake tremors all over Japan. She showed Mark an exhibit with the read-outs in real-time, a live-feed from the sensors. "In fact," she said, "Tokyo had a tremor yesterday."

"What?" exclaimed Mark. "When was it?"

She did some checking on the computer and placed the record of the tremor at around noon, which was the time when we were in a Disney theme park called "Disney Seas" standing in line at a Stormbreaker virtual reality ride. "But we didn't feel it!" Mark thought. The woman said there had been a warning, and Mark and I remembered that the Disney employee who was doing the pre-amble to boarding the ride ventured off-script, seemingly to pad. She was asking who had a birthday and other things in Japanese that were no longer appearing in Chinese and English on an L-E-D screen. When the quake didn't begin, we apparently got the green light to go ahead with the ride. We were being jostled during the ride when the shaker occurred.

When the ride ended, we headed for another ride, "Journey to the Center of the Earth;" but Disney employees were out front saying "Ride is broken, ride is broken," in their broken English. Then another ride was closed. We sighed. Must be some kind of electrical problem. Let's eat lunch and then try again. After lunch, the rides had resumed operation.

Move to Friday morning now. It is our last full day of a week-long vacation. We need souvenirs for our relatives and want to catch one more thing we "can't do without" on this trip. Mark in his research prior to leaving Baton Rouge, had found an obscure, but interesting museum. The Tokyo Fire Department has a Natural Disaster Museum called the Honjo Disaster Prevention Hall. It features an earthquake simulator, much like the smoke box that Baton Rouge's Fire Department has to teach people how to safely escape a burning house.

We head to the subway to go to the museum and it is crowded. It's the end of morning rush hour around 10 am on Friday. Business people are still jamming the platforms trying to get to work.

The train pulls up and it's packed already, but I feel the three of us can fit. I step into the train and look back and the doors are closing. The subway security officer has blocked Mark and Lou from getting on the train! We wave goodbye to each other and go ahead with our emergency plans.  Mark, Lou and I had agreed if any of us got lost in the mob on the subway and got separated that we would ride to the next subway stop and get off. Once there, we would wait however long it takes for the rest of us to reunite.

The riders on my subway car all had sympathetic eyes. I smiled so they wouldn't worry, and got off on the next stop. Uncharacteristically, three of the riders waved goodbye to me. The Japanese are quiet in crowds and are not demonstrative. They were trying hard to reassure me.

After about 7 or 8 minutes alone with the crowd at the next metro stop, Tawaramachi, the boys appear in the train car door that opens next to me. I get in.

Mark is calm and Louie is too. We're fine. When the train stops again we get off together, and Mark immediately looks startled. "Oh no! We got off too early. We're at the wrong stop."

Our plan had been to see the disaster museum in the morning, have lunch, then go shopping on a street that consists of restaurant supply stores to get Japan's finest sushi knives for Mark and our daughter Annie. Now a student in college, Annie had seen a Food Channel show about the fabulous excellence of Japanese knives and had asked for a 10-inch knife as her only souvenir.

"We're near that kitchen street now," Mark said. "Why not just flip the day and do that now?"

Sounded great, so we headed out. The kitchen shop-a-thon was great for a bunch of gourmands.  We had a blast. I bought two plastic signs in Japanese. One that read "Toilet" and one that read "No Smoking" in the baffling picture characters that is their language. I figured it would be a unique souvenir to hang in one of our bathrooms at home. We grabbed funny-looking sushi keychains for friends. We got the revered Matamoto hand-made sushi knives. They were heirloom expensive, but true things of beauty.

We had lunch at a Tokyo hole-in-the-wall. We love these places because Westerners never eat there. It's totally local and totally Japanese…no English. There is no English menu. We order by pointing at meals other people are having and the food is great. The little old lady who's waiting tables simply asks "Soba Udon?" I choose Soba noodles, made from buckwheat. It is while eating that Mark tells Lou and me about the tremor that we missed at Disney. The idea of an earthquake tremor was so novel, we just felt it would be something we'd want to remember. "Oh well," we said, "we'll just have to settle for the simulator."

As we walked to the subway stop Oshiage and head over to the Disaster Prevention Hall, we stopped in the always-clean subway restrooms. It was while we were in the restrooms that the big earthquake struck.

I was motioning for an elderly woman to use the stall before I did, even though she knew I was there first. The Japanese are polite, and I wanted to "out-polite" her. She was refusing and smiling when the floor shuddered.

"Tren," she said, motioning above her head that the subway train may have rattled us. But immediately the shuddering intensified and I felt one of my feet rise, independent of the other…then my second foot rose right after it. THE TILE FLOOR WAS RIPPLING. Disconcerted, I placed my hand on the tile wall to steady myself when the wall rippled. I looked and the tile was moving with ridges like waves passing over it.

The old woman's eyes were wide when I looked at her, and she was saying, rapidly, the same two words over and over again. Outside, I could hear a loud speaker blasting a calm voice saying those two words. "Must be earthquake," I thought; and for that one split-second, my mind said, "the last place you want to be in an earthquake is UNDERGROUND." I drew in a deep breath and determined I would keep a cool head, that it could save my life.

The old woman motioned hard to come out of the bathroom with her, and even touched my arm to add emphasis. She was frantic to make me move. We hurried into the main area where people were already hugging giant support columns that hold up Tokyo Sky Tree, a broadcast and cell phone tower that dominates the Tokyo Skyline. It was rising 2080 feet high above us and the people were already lining up flattened against the walls. They looked like suicide people on a ledge; they even turned their heads to place one side flat on the wall, trying to get as close as possible to the strong support offered there.

The old woman happened to bring me to the same support column that Mark and Lou had been led to by an old man in their bathroom. Mark said he had known what was up by the suddenly frightened look on the man's face.

It felt like ten minutes of shaking, but in fact, was just two minutes 30 seconds. When the quake stopped, there was a moment of absolute silence and stillness. No one moved. We were all in shock.

Then, as if someone had hit a big release button, everyone whipped out their cell phones and texted someone. No one called; they texted. I imagined, hundreds, thousands, millions of texts flying… "Did U Feel That?!", "I'm OK" all in Japanese, of course.

An announcer then took the P-A system and asked everyone to evacuate the subway station.  Nothing had fallen - no ceiling tiles, no cracks in the floor - but apparently all over the city, subway tracks were popped apart. The Metro System was a shambles. Trains were derailed.

We went outside and started walking away. We met people standing gape-mouthed looking back behind us. We turned. The 30-story high-rise that had been directly overhead, newly built and Tokyo Sky Tree, a new landmark still under construction and even taller, were STILL SWAYING. You could hear the metal pop on the two cranes that were mounted on the Tokyo Sky Tree about 100 feet from the top. Pullies on cables on those cranes were swinging wildly. Louie shouted, "It's gonna fall! It's gonna fall!"

"No honey, it's not swaying enough to fall," I said hopefully. We turned and walked some more. Lou held Mark's hand tightly.

We had gotten about four blocks away from the tower into a quasi residential/business neighborhood when an aftershock, a strong one hit. We found out later it was about 4 on the Tremor Scale. I had the presence of mind that time to pull out my video camera, but because everything was moving, so was I; and it's tough to see in my video how the utility poles are swaying and electric lines are jumping. Water in a nearby canal was sloshing big-time, and that was a little alarming. Mark and I kept calm the whole time, and as a result Louie did too. It was only during that first aftershock that I caught myself, later on video saying "Man up Lou. C'mon man up Lou. You're OK." The aftershock waned and we kept walking.

We came upon homeowners picking up tiles and bricks that broke from the corners of their homes, and one lady showed us pavement that cracked in her garage, but the damage was looking minor. Businesses had popped plate glass windows and signs that turned over.

Louie saw a massive water-main over the canal that was hissing. The shaker had cracked something at the valve.

Louie was picking up shards of broken things and shoving them in his pockets. Mark and I call him the "human vacuum cleaner" because of his love of scavenging old bolts, rocks, and bottle caps.  He's a 10-year-old boy! What can I say? But thinking of people after Katrina hating sight-seers, I asked Louie to stop scavenging their chips of brick, and he did.

We walked down the road and saw the entire staff of a large grocery store sitting out front in the parking lot. That's what you saw everywhere. People just knew to get out of buildings, because of the danger of collapse. Apartment buildings, businesses, homes.

I had wondered why people were still out of their homes and workmen were still standing by 40 minutes after the quake, but that question was answered five more times when five more aftershocks hit us. None as big as that first one. But one of them was a real surprise.

It was bitter cold in Tokyo. We walked and walked for a couple of hours. There was no other way to get around. The subway was our transportation and it was broken. The 18 million people who live in Tokyo were also without transportation. Suddenly people in business suits were all on the streets.

We were hoofing it around in the cold when we came upon a gleaming chrome and glass shopping mall. We thought we'd just go in and rest our feet. It was warm. Mark pulled out his diary and immediately started writing about the earthquake. Lou and I rested, and I could tell Lou was getting bored from just sitting. I pulled out my camera and asked him to tell me about what happened. He was doing that when I heard a low rumble behind me. A metal roll-down door on a store was rattling with increasing intensity. We realized this was another after-shock. Everyone in the mall filed out through the doors and spilled out on the plaza in front. More cell phone texting.

We began to wonder how we'd get from one extreme side of Tokyo to the other where our hotel was. The Metro had not reopened like we thought it would. The damage was FAR more extensive than we knew. Night was falling and I was estimating in my mind that to walk back would probably take us five hours. Mark and I were struggling to keep upbeat for Lou, but it was looking grim.

We're on a busy street in a busy district. People are everywhere, but going nowhere. They can't. I look up and it hit me like a thunderbolt. Something about the city bus I saw stood out, and I realized that the marquis on it said "Nippori." That was the subway station nearest our hotel!! "Mark!" I shouted, pointing at the bus. "Nippori, Nippori!"

"Keep track of that bus!" Mark shouted. "Find out where its next bus stop is!"

We both grabbed Lou and started running down the crowded sidewalk, trying to keep pace with the bus. We had struggled about a block when the bus stopped ahead of us. There was already a significant line at the bustop when we got there, but we got in the line.

We watched the people in front of the line get on the Nippori bus and watched it leave. At LEAST we KNEW this was a stop that led to our hotel region! We all agreed, we'd wait. But the wait got long. Mark and I considered going and trying to find someone selling food, but then a bus appeared. It stopped, and though it was crowded, people pulled us onto the bus.

We were standing with people touching us on all four sides, and I've never felt safer. I've been groped in a jammed Mexico City subway, pick-pocketed in a crowd in Spain. I was fearing the worst, but the Japanese are a unique culture. Each person kept to themselves as best he could with people cramped around him on all sides. We would ride-- and the bus driver did not skip a stop-- Like a giant clown car with more people in it than the car could hold. Our bus rolled on.

We knew it would be a long ride. But we didn't know the bus driver was going to stop at all his regular bus stops, even though we were at critical mass capacity for passengers. Sometimes, but rarely, several people would get off; but more people would get on. At one point, the bus driver in Japanese asked women who were crushed up around him to move, so he could move his elbows to drive.  I felt like the whole bus was enduring whatever they could to make it possible for all of us to go on.

An elderly man was pressed to my left side. Somewhere in his 70-plus years he learned some English and when I first looked at him, he said, "Are you in Tokyo for business?" I smiled. "No, for fun." We both rolled our eyes. I tried to speak simply so he'd understand. He asked "How's your family?" I motioned my head to Mark and Lou. "My family is HERE. We're fine." I smiled.

We rode on, the old man was so stooped he could not grab the straps that hung overhead to stabilize people standing up. On the bright side, our close quarters meant that he didn't need to be stabilized. The crowd pinned him in upright stance. Louie was about armpit high and his face was buried in Mark's side. Partly that way because he wanted to be, Lou was also being pressed on all sides by adult bodies. When a seat eventually opened up, all the women on the bus loudly insisted in Japanese that the treasured "seat" go to Louie and not to an older woman.

The man next to me started quaking like he had palsy. I feared he was going to pass out. I pulled my hand down from the bus' strap and forced it down my side and into my coat pocket. I'd been grabbing free candy at restaurants all week to have snacks whenever Lou needed one. I pulled an orange-flavored hard candy out of my pocket and worked my hand through people over to my shaking "friend". "OY-shee?" I said. It means "delicious?" He smiled and said a sharp "Hi" which means yes. "Hi" must always be said with energy. Tradition. I heard the wrapper crinkle crinkle and knew he had eaten it.

As the bus was caught in the traffic jams and all, it took us a few hours to get back to Nippori, but we made it about 9 o'clock. We were greeted at our bed and breakfast by a clearly worried owner's wife. "We have checked and our rooms are secure. No danger," she said.

Mark quickly sat at the computer in the lobby, and emailed Annie. "Got your sushi knife. We fly out tomorrow. This may be our last email until we're home."

We smiled and thanked our hostess and headed upstairs. I caught her watching us closely as we ascended. She was worried about what we were thinking or what we had experienced. She always paid close attention, especially to Louie. She seemed so worried. She speaks Japanese and had been watching the news. We had not.

In our room, we slipped out of our shoes and collapsed in our floor-mat beds, exhausted, and knowing we had experienced the real thing. We commented how the Japanese had taken care of us. Had they had made sure we had gotten to safety. They were calm throughout. No shouting. No running in panic. But we had no idea that what we experienced was the strongest earthquake on record in Japan.

The next morning we woke and planned to see one more thing. Our plane to America wasn't due for takeoff until 5pm. We were going to head to Ripponi, the Tokyo neighborhood where Mark's parents had lived when his dad was a military intelligence officer in the 1950s.

Mark stepped into the bathroom as we were getting ready, and Lou and I switched on the TV.  Japanese news was on when other programming should have been, and they were showing scenes that looked like a hurricane had struck. We understood none of the language, but could tell the city they were showing was Hokkaido. I called to Mark in the other room, "looks like a major weather story in Hokkaido. The damage looks like after Katrina." Mark answered ominously, "that's not weather  Donna, think about it. There was an earthquake yesterday, that's tsunami!" I gasped. He was right. All three of us stood and watched the Japanese reporters in stricken zones. Our mouths hung open. We had never imagined there had been a bigger event. We suddenly realized we had not been at the epicenter of the earthquake. We had been on the outskirts and the impact zone was flattened with flooding remaining from the tsunami.

Mark suddenly wondered, "Do we still have a flight tonight?" We hustled downstairs and three other Western couples were already clustered around the computer. There were two Germans, two Swedes and a noisy American woman on the phone yelling with her meek American boyfriend.  "Well we can't get to the airport today, the Metro is closed and there are no taxis!" she was belting.  Her voice had an annoying edge. She kept asking to speak to someone ELSE who spoke better English. The male owner of the small hotel was sitting behind the reception desk. He told us the Internet was fading in and out.

Some of the couples were not trying to fly to America, but were trying to go on to Guam, and Singapore. Their flights were flat canceled. Officials had blamed the tsunami. Mark took his turn at the computer as quickly as possible. He fired off one more email to Annie back in Baton Rouge, and then the Continental Airlines website flashed on-screen. Mark said, "I'm not believing this. The web shows that our flight managed to take off yesterday THREE HOURS AFTER THE QUAKE." Might it mean that our flight on Saturday would take off as well? Mark went ahead and clicked a few times and checked us in. He was in the process of pre-boarding and getting our boarding passes when the Internet finally went kaput.

We stood for a moment in the lobby pondering our next move. The loud-mouthed American woman advised us that we were on-ice. "No subway", she said. "Even if you had a flight at Narita airport, you can't get there from here."

I was saying my goodbye to the hotel owners, and gave them a brand-new LSU Tigers baseball cap I had brought as a hospitality gift. He thanked us profusely, and then reached in a back room to grab two good luck cat charms that I had seen dangling from cell phones all over the city, and a little brocade change purse. "Domoh Origah-toh" we said. The hotel  owner expected the subways to be repaired, and recommended we wait a couple of hours, since our plane was later.

We stepped outside into the street. "Let's walk to the subway station and check things there," Mark said. Neither he nor I wanted to trust what Japanese people would say, while struggling with English on the phone, to an obnoxious young woman. Louie showed me a small stuffed toy someone had dropped. He asked if he could put it in boxes that the neighborhood had already started collecting items for the tsunami victims. I said "sure" and Lou scampered to tuck the little toy in amid the donated essentials like tooth brushes and diapers.

When we entered Nippori station, we could not tell if the trains were running. We saw a man we knew to be like a Wal-Mart greeter at home. He wore a long-coat uniform and hat and stood near the ticket office. Most riders got tickets from automatic machines in the wall, but there was always a human selling tickets as well. We tried to talk to the ticket lady. Mark thought if the local train line was down, we might right the suburban line, known as the Kisei. The ticket lady pointed us to the uniformed man. She seemed to be indicating that HE was the Kisei expert. We stood in line and waited our turn.

When we reached the front, he spoke no English. We asked "Narita Airport"? He nodded. My heart jumped. Was there actually a way? He motioned Mark over to a map on the wall that had both the JR, the local line, and the Kisei.  Using hand motions, he described a subway line broken in segments. There was not one intact full line, but officials had pieced together a series of segments that could get you across town if you were tenacious enough. "Ride the local train to here", his hands said, "then climb over the platform and take the Kisei line to here. Then, again, crawl over the platform and take the JR line to here."  Mark turned to me beaming. "It's possible!" he said.  The man offered to show us how to buy the tickets, but we refused. We indicated that we needed to get our luggage first and headed back to our hotel.

We told everyone our news. It was credible. It was from the source. They couldn't use the info because they had already re-scheduled their flights and were settling in for a few more days in the city. We bid our hosts "goodbye" again and headed off to the subway station. Lou and I had luggage on wheels. Mark had a big duffle and a backpack. This was not going to be easy because of the suitcases.

When we got to the platform it was crowded. The Japanese could understand the signs and instructions, and it was clear that some knew what we had found. We had to wait for a couple of trains to load and leave before it was our turn to ride, and again the car was packed cheek and jowl. Everyone was quiet like a library. Everyone smelled well-scrubbed. There was a light scent of a woman's shampoo standing close to me. People were coming and going at each stop, but everyone in the car got off at the stop where the change to another platform took place. That first train then headed back on the tracks it had come on.

We climbed over, guessing where we should go. Even if we could read the signs, we didn't think they would be accurate for this ride we were taking. Mark constantly checked maps on the walls.  The station at this change spot was jammed with people. And there was actually a backup at the stairs that ascended to the platform. We lined up and pulled out rice cakes that we had bought at 7-11 to eat for breakfast. Louie polished it off and asked for the yogurt he knew we had. The Japanese had watched us with interest. They had not presumed to eat in public. Usually it was considered rude. But this was an exigent situation, and three women behind us pulled out food they had been carrying and ate it.

Two Metro officials in uniform pressed through our crowd. They quietly strung what looked like crime tape. It was some kind of barrier and stood by the barrier to wait. I lifted my still cam, a Nikon Coolpix and snapped a shot over the heads of people in front of us. Using the camera like a periscope, the picture showed that every inch of stair had been occupied. I craned on my tiptoes and looked again. The platform at the bottom was so full of people that they were in danger of falling off the edges. This was an example of the difference between Japan and America. The crowd was virtually quiet. No speaking.  And officials had not screamed "Hey, you're dangerously crowding the platform!" They just put up a quiet ribbon to keep us from further crowding in the area. The ribbon came down once trains had time to move away the crowd below.

This second line, the Kisei line was crowded at first, but the mother-lode of passengers got off before the next impromptu transfer point. We sighed in the spacious feeling of people filling all the seats, but not every cubic inch of air too. Louie looked relieved and relaxed.  We finally saw two Westerners. They were Mormon missionaries from Utah, and he spoke Japanese. The couple said they had been trapped away from their hotel the night before and had slept in the subway.  Rather than fight their way back to their hotel, they were going to the airport to try to get a flight. We shared our story.

We got off at the transfer point and were back into the biblical mass of humanity. The suitcases were so bulky. It was like dragging another person. We found a spot on the platform and leaned against the wall. Two trains would pass before it was our turn, and when it was our turn the car was so full that people pulled in our suitcases for us so that we could push with our bodies and get in.

"This feels like the last plane out of Saigon", Mark said. He had said this phrase before in our marriage, but this time it had never been more true.

The last length of the ride was out on the edge of Tokyo. You saw homes that looked like townhouses. There were many four-plexes. Each one with a little garden. I imagined that bonsai plants were not created for their art, but out of the necessity of cramped Tokyo quarters and gardens. There were many bonsai gardens. You saw very little quake damage here, which was good. It meant maybe no damage at the airport.

We arrive at Narita. A trip which had taken us 20 minutes the previous Saturday had taken five hours.

At Narita, we found our way to the other side of the International Terminal and lined up behind 30 or so people who were ahead of us. A Continental employee approached me and said "Today's flight? Or YESTERDAY'S flight?" I said, "I thought the one yesterday flew. The website showed that."  The employee gave a tired smile. "We couldn't update the website yesterday. Sorry."

"Today's flight," I said, and she said "Get in this line." We did. It was shorter. Only 20 people. Louie asked for the Japanese Pokemon cards we had gotten when we visited the Pokemon Capital of the World in Tokyo. Lou quietly leafed through his powerful little heroes and organized them while sitting Indian style on the floor of the terminal. When it was finally our turn to check in, the Continental employee stood in amazement. "You're already pre-boarded!" he told Mark. "Did you know that?"

Mark told him the Internet had failed while he was trying to do it and he didn't know if it had gone through. "Well it did," the worker said, "and because you checked in online early this morning, you're one of the few who will actually fly out of here today."

We checked our luggage in and headed for what would only be about an hour's wait.

The sun was setting with brilliant hues when our plane taxied for takeoff. It bathed the wings in gold.

We would fly backward across the International Dateline on the flight. We would arrive in Houston, still on Saturday, but one hour before we took off in Japan.

As the days have followed and I've watched the news coverage in Baton Rouge, Mark and I have slowly realized how extraordinarily lucky we were in this whole ordeal. To see a bus with Nippori on it, to pre-board the plane by Internet and thereby assure going home - those were two miracles ... God's hand or extremely good luck. Whatever it was I am thankful. And my heart aches for the Japanese people we left behind.

Copyright 2011 WAFB. All rights reserved.