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Sendai, Japan: The Day the Earth Shook

March 11 was a cold, slow-moving Friday afternoon at our home in Sendai. As a freelance writer and translator, I was making a transition, familiar on such idle afternoons.

Having finished a bit of urgent deadline work, I was shifting gears to work on a list of long-term projects with more vaguely defined objectives and prospects. I turned to a hobby to pass the time for a few minutes until our two daughters would return home from school and routine distractions would free me from thoughts of work, business and my own finances.

Also routine was a brief shudder under my feet as I stood at an upstairs bathroom sink, whittling on a piece of dry white clay I hoped to turn into a porcelain figurine. Minor earthquakes are commonplace in Japan, and having lived here for 20-odd years, I thought nothing of it. A moment later, I looked up from my work to take notice of another, more assertive shudder. Though still faint, this one had an insistent, snatching character I'd felt before. The windows whispered rather than rattled, then all returned to normal — briefly.

I soon set my sharp carving tool down on the glass counter as the floor vibrated again in a fine vertical tremor that seemed to draw out longer — this one wasn't fading. As I’d done hundreds of times, I decided to wait and see what was in store.

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The vertical vibration slowed in frequency and increased in intensity as horizontal waves began to snatch at the floor and walls, gently at first, then more powerfully. The question now was how much drama would be appropriate in front of my wife, Chiaki, who was at home with me. Do I dive under a table, covering my head? Certainly not! Stand under a doorway? Reasonable. As I stood in the bathroom doorway, suggesting that Chiaki do the same, there was a sense underfoot of riding a skateboard over marbles or pebbles. Disorienting, but one’s feet could still be trusted.

The horizontal and vertical vibrations then produced wavelike shocks that combined into crazed twitching, lurching motions of all frequencies. My worry now was whether I could make it down the stairs to the entryway of our home, which I felt was the most structurally safe and uncluttered place in our home. As the rolling, jabbing motions of the floor and walls grew beyond all past experience, I felt all confidence, all sense of appropriate earthquake comportment slipping away. No longer concerned with drama, I reached for a railing as I lurched forward over the top steps of the staircase. I do not remember gripping or missing, only jolting forward, down and around toward the entryway. The motions became more rhythmic, like riding an overspeed train as it threatened to jump the rails at any moment, then did.

I briefly negotiated with the urge to cling to normal concerns, as I moved a sculpture I'd made of the Madonna and Child off an end table where it made a tottering top-heavy display. As I placed it on the shifting floor, the sound of big things falling deep inside the house, and of shattering glass, snapped a last tenuous thread connecting to the delightfully idle concerns of a minute before.

"Chiaki? Where are you... where are you?" I yelled to my wife, implying that she'd better be under a table. In fact, Chiaki was doing her best to form a right triangle with her body in efforts to brace up a prized antique writing desk with glass cabinet above.

I do not remember the end of the earthquake. It may have stopped suddenly, and it may have slowly receded. I only remember putting on sandals and a jacket, then wandering out into a light snowfall to watch the evacuation at Takamori Elementary School, where my daughters Tina, 10, and Elena, 7, are in the second and fifth grades.

When the floor and walls had stopped twisting and jolting, there was a woozy, slow swaying of the ground. Neither clearly horizontal, vertical or periodic, it produced an odd sensation something like standing on solid ground after days or weeks at sea.

I called to my wife Chiaki again. Finding that she was unhurt, I trotted out into a light snowfall and headed toward the nearby elementary school, where I imagined I'd find my daughters Tina and Elena enjoying a break from classes out on the playground. I do not know why my first thought wasn't a desperate need to see and protect them immediately. I didn't run, but strolled down to the school, hands in pockets, jingling keys.

As I moved through the street, I stepped over small compressed ripples and ruptures in the pavement everywhere. I saw fine but serious-looking structural cracks in walls, scrambled roofing tiles and broken windows. Some homes were spared damage, some not. No one was calling out. I saw no one on the street. And the light dusting of snow dampened all noise.

At the playground, the children were filing out of the five-story building in orderly fire-drill style. It was freezing cold and snowing after having been warm in the morning, so no one had dressed warmly enough. I walked around the assembled group of about 200 students and felt a bit frustrated; I couldn't find my daughters, or even identify any of the kids I know. None smiled or waved at me as they usually do.

They were difficult to distinguish, and not just because they were each wearing a standard-issue silver-gray fire retardant head covering. There was something else common in their appearance. Every kid had the same mask-like facial expression — a thousand-yard stare that is astonishing to see on a child.

I finally identified Elena, my seven-year-old, and went to hold onto her and maybe clown around a little to cheer her up. She was shivering, so I tried to give her my coat. She said, "I'm not shaking because I'm cold, it's... that..." and she couldn't describe it. It dawned on me then that these kids were all in shock, probably for the first time. I made her put on my jacket, and we held on to each other as we squatted on the sandy turf.

The lazy swaying of the ground began again and we looked across the playground, watching long, low, quick swells pass across the surface, and the ground vibrated like gel as aftershocks came through. Sometimes the ground seemed to rotate slightly, as though the playground were a bowl of pudding with us at the center, and it was being twisted back and forth by someone gripping the circumference. This is impossible, of course, even in an earthquake. And yet there it was.

When one of these weird contortions would occur, whatever teacher or school official was addressing the assembly would pause briefly and uncertainly before bringing the megaphone back into speaking position. It was only a slight hesitation in what was really a seamlessly professional, well-drilled conduct of the safety procedures. Yet I couldn't help noticing it. I'd seen it somewhere before and decades ago, in a crowd — was it a plane crash? A traffic accident? A fire? I couldn't remember.

We heard a series of explosions, softly in the distance. But while seeing the solid ground turn liquid before our eyes, we were beyond concern about what these might be.

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March 11 was a cold, slow-moving Friday afternoon at our home in Sendai. As a freelance writer and translator, I was making a transition, familiar on such idle afternoons.

Having finished a bit of urgent deadline work, I was shifting gears to work on a list of long-term projects with more vaguely defined objectives and prospects. I turned to a hobby to pass the time for a few minutes until our two daughters would return home from school and routine distractions would free me from thoughts of work, business and my own finances.

Also routine was a brief shudder under my feet as I stood at an upstairs bathroom sink, whittling on a piece of dry white clay I hoped to turn into a porcelain figurine. Minor earthquakes are commonplace in Japan, and having lived here for 20-odd years, I thought nothing of it. A moment later, I looked up from my work to take notice of another, more assertive shudder. Though still faint, this one had an insistent, snatching character I'd felt before. The windows whispered rather than rattled, then all returned to normal — briefly.

I soon set my sharp carving tool down on the glass counter as the floor vibrated again in a fine vertical tremor that seemed to draw out longer — this one wasn't fading. As I’d done hundreds of times, I decided to wait and see what was in store.

Sponsored
Sponsored

The vertical vibration slowed in frequency and increased in intensity as horizontal waves began to snatch at the floor and walls, gently at first, then more powerfully. The question now was how much drama would be appropriate in front of my wife, Chiaki, who was at home with me. Do I dive under a table, covering my head? Certainly not! Stand under a doorway? Reasonable. As I stood in the bathroom doorway, suggesting that Chiaki do the same, there was a sense underfoot of riding a skateboard over marbles or pebbles. Disorienting, but one’s feet could still be trusted.

The horizontal and vertical vibrations then produced wavelike shocks that combined into crazed twitching, lurching motions of all frequencies. My worry now was whether I could make it down the stairs to the entryway of our home, which I felt was the most structurally safe and uncluttered place in our home. As the rolling, jabbing motions of the floor and walls grew beyond all past experience, I felt all confidence, all sense of appropriate earthquake comportment slipping away. No longer concerned with drama, I reached for a railing as I lurched forward over the top steps of the staircase. I do not remember gripping or missing, only jolting forward, down and around toward the entryway. The motions became more rhythmic, like riding an overspeed train as it threatened to jump the rails at any moment, then did.

I briefly negotiated with the urge to cling to normal concerns, as I moved a sculpture I'd made of the Madonna and Child off an end table where it made a tottering top-heavy display. As I placed it on the shifting floor, the sound of big things falling deep inside the house, and of shattering glass, snapped a last tenuous thread connecting to the delightfully idle concerns of a minute before.

"Chiaki? Where are you... where are you?" I yelled to my wife, implying that she'd better be under a table. In fact, Chiaki was doing her best to form a right triangle with her body in efforts to brace up a prized antique writing desk with glass cabinet above.

I do not remember the end of the earthquake. It may have stopped suddenly, and it may have slowly receded. I only remember putting on sandals and a jacket, then wandering out into a light snowfall to watch the evacuation at Takamori Elementary School, where my daughters Tina, 10, and Elena, 7, are in the second and fifth grades.

When the floor and walls had stopped twisting and jolting, there was a woozy, slow swaying of the ground. Neither clearly horizontal, vertical or periodic, it produced an odd sensation something like standing on solid ground after days or weeks at sea.

I called to my wife Chiaki again. Finding that she was unhurt, I trotted out into a light snowfall and headed toward the nearby elementary school, where I imagined I'd find my daughters Tina and Elena enjoying a break from classes out on the playground. I do not know why my first thought wasn't a desperate need to see and protect them immediately. I didn't run, but strolled down to the school, hands in pockets, jingling keys.

As I moved through the street, I stepped over small compressed ripples and ruptures in the pavement everywhere. I saw fine but serious-looking structural cracks in walls, scrambled roofing tiles and broken windows. Some homes were spared damage, some not. No one was calling out. I saw no one on the street. And the light dusting of snow dampened all noise.

At the playground, the children were filing out of the five-story building in orderly fire-drill style. It was freezing cold and snowing after having been warm in the morning, so no one had dressed warmly enough. I walked around the assembled group of about 200 students and felt a bit frustrated; I couldn't find my daughters, or even identify any of the kids I know. None smiled or waved at me as they usually do.

They were difficult to distinguish, and not just because they were each wearing a standard-issue silver-gray fire retardant head covering. There was something else common in their appearance. Every kid had the same mask-like facial expression — a thousand-yard stare that is astonishing to see on a child.

I finally identified Elena, my seven-year-old, and went to hold onto her and maybe clown around a little to cheer her up. She was shivering, so I tried to give her my coat. She said, "I'm not shaking because I'm cold, it's... that..." and she couldn't describe it. It dawned on me then that these kids were all in shock, probably for the first time. I made her put on my jacket, and we held on to each other as we squatted on the sandy turf.

The lazy swaying of the ground began again and we looked across the playground, watching long, low, quick swells pass across the surface, and the ground vibrated like gel as aftershocks came through. Sometimes the ground seemed to rotate slightly, as though the playground were a bowl of pudding with us at the center, and it was being twisted back and forth by someone gripping the circumference. This is impossible, of course, even in an earthquake. And yet there it was.

When one of these weird contortions would occur, whatever teacher or school official was addressing the assembly would pause briefly and uncertainly before bringing the megaphone back into speaking position. It was only a slight hesitation in what was really a seamlessly professional, well-drilled conduct of the safety procedures. Yet I couldn't help noticing it. I'd seen it somewhere before and decades ago, in a crowd — was it a plane crash? A traffic accident? A fire? I couldn't remember.

We heard a series of explosions, softly in the distance. But while seeing the solid ground turn liquid before our eyes, we were beyond concern about what these might be.

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