Sunday, March 13, 2011
Tokyo rocked by Mother of All Earthquakes
Friday (March 11, 2011), afternoon around 2:50, I was in bed taking a siesta--as I went to bed last night, or this morning, only around 3:00 AM. It was time for me to get up, but I was still psyching myself to get up while listening to Narnia, the C.S.Lewis fable for children. One of the characters in the story, Eustace, was wondering who he was as he suddenly found himself changed to a dragon. Then I sensed small mild tremors. Although most of us, accustomed as we are to innumerable tremblers, tend to take them easy, today I got up, got out, closed the door, and stood in the usual 'safe' place, which is the door frame, between the room and the corridor. [It is 10:15 PM now, and I just returned after going out, as the building started shaking again.] It looked like the usual rattle, with some shakes and squeaks, but suddenly it got serious and continued on and on, with violent movements of everything around me. I could hear inside the room things crashing and books falling, and the whole building was moving in different directions. The noise was really the most frightening as it was like going on an old steam engine train over a broken down bridge in India. Or, (for those who have not been to India) it was as if the whole building was an airplane going through a turbulence over the Pacific!
Today was supposed to be the wake of Fr. George Graziano, whose lifeless body lay just about 20 meters from where I was, and no doubt I prepared interiorly to join him saying goodbye to this world. I could hear things falling in different rooms, but could hear no one crying or shouting. Neither could I see anyone running. It was as if I was the only one in the whole building, going to face this calamity. The quake seemed to continue much longer than usual, becoming extremely severe at times. I could see the door of the tiny chapel in front of my room open, and two statues (one of Mary and the other of Joseph) falling down and crashing into pieces. The decapitated head of Joseph rolled towards the exit, and moved back and forth in rhythm with the quake. I was wondering whether to get out of the building by running just a couple of meters to the exit door, but the threat of imminent doom held me strapped to my 'safe' spot. At last--some say after about three minutes, some say after about five minutes--the quakes subsided, and I rushed out of the building to the open ground between a three storied building and a five storied building.
There in the same area, I met a young man in his twenties, who had come to Japan just a couple of months ago. He was dressed in black for the wake of George, and he was dusting himself and pressing down his pants. As he was a foreigner, I asked him where he was during the quake and how he found the experience. Although he looked cool, his story was even more chilling than mine, Apparently he was in the adjoining building using a personal computer, when he felt the quake. He tried to get out, but in the corridor, he was not sure if he could make it safely to the exit. So he went back to the computer room and opened the window to get out. Unfortunately, outside the window there is a two-meter-wide pit going all the way down to the concrete basement, and the only solid ground is about two meter away. To add to his problems, the window too is quite small and about a meter above ground; so he could not sprint or stand near the window to jump. Still being young and perhaps scared, he just jumped and landed safely on the muddy ground with some interior scratches in his leg. So he was still tense with fear, which increased as he viewed the nearby tall buildings swaying back and forth. Luckily he had no serious injury, and he looked cheerful.
The aftershocks continued as I took a walk around the building and the garden. I could see a large number of persons standing outside in the streets of Sophia University, but there didn't seem to be any damage. Many residents I spoke with mentioned about things falling down and room in disarray, but nobody reported any human injury. The Sophia employees meanwhile came out and directed everyone to go out to the playground, which is the official 'safe'' area for people around here during a major quake. Today there were some graduate school entrance examinations, and so there were many more people than usual. I went to the Sophia crossroads, met many students and friends, and walked towards the playground. There were a few hundred people in the playground just in front of the main entrance to Sophia. I went up the dote 'embankment' where too there were many people, each one with a cellphone trying desperately to contact someone or other. Apparently cell phones didn't work for some time or they worked only partly. So some seemed frustrated. Of course, everyone seemed to be narrating to someone else how he or she escaped the quake and which things fell down or broke. As I walked towards the Yotsuya station, I could see that the cross on top of the St. Ignatius Church tower had rotated 180 degrees, hinging on a screw that held it aloft over the tower. Some bricks or concrete debris seem to have fallen down, and so there was a no entry zone around the tower.
It was after about 15:40 that some Sophia employees announced in a megaphone that they could return to their places. [It was surprising that they didn't use the loudspeaker; they only used a simple megaphone, which could be heard only by a few people nearby!] The trains had stopped soon after the quake, and so many people had nowhere to go. According to TV, most taxis and buses too were unavailable. So many started walking back. Many students and employees returned to the university. Many persons slept yesterday in shelters as they could not return to their homes, and some walked for three to five hours to reach their home! Sophia too made its space available to those who sought shelter.
On TV, of course, the earthquake has been the only news in all channels, and even now at 12:10 AM, on March 13, they still broadcast earthquake news. When I saw the news some time ago, about 1400 were reported dead, and a large number missing or wounded. According to news, this earthquake was perhaps the most serious in anyone's living memory, and perhaps the deadliest in a millennium. This was also a mega quake that has affected almost the whole of Japan, all the way from Hokkaido to Okinawa. The center of the quake seems to have been somewhere in the sea near Miyagi, with a frightening 8.9 magnitude. Miyagi seems to have felt a quake of 7.8 magnitude, and the Tokyo area, a quake of magnitude between 5 & 6. The duration of the quake, about three to five minutes, too seems to have been quite unusual.
What seems to have done the greatest damage is the tsunami. Although the news channels warned about the tsunami soon after the quake, people seemed to have had no time to remove their belongings to a safe area. The news clips of the inundating tsunami look like Hollywood movie clips as rushing water pours into airports, homes, and highways hauling cars, trucks, boats, houses, and even buildings! There were also fires in many places. The Sendai airport seems to have practically sunk under tsunami though parts of the main building were above water. And now there is the very serious talk of chemical leaks from the atomic plant, which has made it necessary to move nearby residents to safe areas at least 30 kms away.
One point that struck me after the quake was how sturdy the modern buildings are! Really the Japanese architects have done an excellent job! Although in movies we see skyscrapers crashing and crushing people, not a single major edifice seems to have fallen during this monstrous quake. A couple of minor accidents were there, but no major collapse of any building. In Tokyo there were only very few deaths due to the structural failure of buildings--one of the saddest being the Kudan Kaikan crash that seems to have killed two and injured about 20. No doubt, the Police, SDF, Fire Service, and other service personnel too are doing a remarkable job during this critical time. Congratulations and thanks to all of them!
Although it is nearly 32 hours after the major quake, I can still feel tremors now and then. The aftershocks have continued since yesterday afternoon, and one doesn't feel relaxed enough to go to sleep. I hope we will all live through this monstrous mother of all earthquakes and learn additional lessons to protect ourselves better.