Living in the Twilight Zone pt.I

The past several days have felt like living in a Rod Serling narrated otherworld. To recap my personal experience since 2:46 p.m. on Friday March 11, 2011 would require writing a short novel. I will spare you that, but want to leave a comprehensive record of what I experienced this week.

Friday, March 11th

It was a normal Friday afternoon. Slightly busier than normal at the office, I took the unusual step of writing a list of all the things to do that day before I left that day. It was six items long. I had only crossed off one translation job that I had finished in the early afternoon by the time two came along. A brainstorming session about how to encourage foreign tourists to come to Tokyo was scheduled from two o'clock. The meeting--about eight or nine strong--included several
Japanese co-workers and the one other American guy. There were some zany ideas being thrown around by the locals, including promotion of "power spots" (?) and chambara classes. There was some eye-rolling taking place among myself and guess who amidst the wild conjecture by the Japanese team about where Europeans would love to spend their lovely imaginary future trips to Tokyo. All in all, a typical, patience-grating waste of time.

At some point I notice the room wobbling slightly. I quietly observed,「揺れてる・・・」(it's shaking), at which point the brainstorming died away and all eight of us sat there in relative silence waiting for the shaking to calm down. (We had just had a relatively long, but mild earthquake about a week before that lasted about a minute. I thought was a little out of the ordinary for the type of swaying--it was very slow and rocked like a boat rocking on 2-D waves. Like being in a raft in TRON. )

The odd thing about this latest quake was it just kept going and going, albeit slowly. Then, at the point when most earthquakes start to die down, it very gradually began to grow stronger and stronger and started really feeling like a boat in a storm. At some point, when the table started moving around, the girl next to me began to lose it, asking around if we should actually protect ourselves (this is VERY uncommon in Japan, where most people don't bat an eyelash at a semi-powerful earthquake, yet constantly moan about the temperature being 1 degree below their comfort zone). I think we were all getting concerned by this point. Normally people here would never consider actually running outside (we were on the sixth floor so the amount of time required to get out would likely mean the quake would be over before you get out).

I remember hearing some crashing sounds in the background. This was our final signal to bolt. I couldn't tell if they were buildings collapsing outside or ...? (I later found out it was the bookshelves and PC monitors falling over in the next room.) People started heading toward the door and we scuttled towards the never used emergency fire escape stairwell.

From what I remember it was still shaking by the time we got all the way downstairs and outside. It really felt like it was not going to stop.

Some videos that show the power of the quake:

The entire company (200+) was safely evacuated to the nearby park to stand around freezing and sharing spotty information that was coming through twitter and TV (one-seg). About two hours later after everyone was accounted for (and a few more large aftershocks), we were instructed to head back to the office in an orderly fashion. People on the 9th floor first, followed by the 8th floor and so on.

The evacuation in the park:

We got back to the office to clean up the fallen bookshelves and computers. One bookshelf that had been crammed with magazines was a huge mess and someone turned to me to say, "見なかったことにしよう" (Let's pretend we didn't see that). I nod and move to my workspace. After a lull of what must have been 30 seconds, another uncomfortably large aftershock kicks in and that's when we realize it's time to haul ass out of there for good. No more work will be getting done even if the aftershocks were to stop.

Once back out on the street, there is some awkward mulling about to figure out who is walking in which direction, as the general consensus is that work is done. One guy starts getting vocal, questioning why we can't stay and work. It is too early to go back, he pontificates--"I haven't even been able to get through to the client yet!" Either dazed or annoyed, (in my case) no one argues, and at this point, several groups that thought they could get a taxi together went off to try and do so. I found some people walking towards Ueno and started back toward my house.

It's about an hour long walk that turns to a trudge, with growing numbers of people marching in one direction or another. As we get closer to Tokyo station and Nihombashi the human herd becomes thick.

The only damaged building I saw on the way home:

The view of my room when I finally got home:

Although it seemed bad at the time, based on all the tweets and facebook posts I was reading on the way home, I imagined that the damage here in Tokyo was nothing compared to what it must be in Miyagi prefecture...

(to be continued)

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