People in the office started talking about how this was the scariest and longest earthquake they had ever experienced. Some people near the refresh area ran to the windows and cried out. So everyone rushed to the windows to see what was so interesting outside. Black smoke was pouring out of a large building in the Odaiba area, another man-made island built in Tokyo harbor that we can see from our office.
Since the elevators automatically shut down after a sufficiently large earthquake, the only way in and out of the building was the staircase. Other emergency preparations included setting fire extinguishes or heavy boxes against the security doors for easy egress from the building. The aftershocks started, and quite honestly, one of them was probably the second biggest earthquake I’ve ever experienced. It’s over a week later now, and the aftershocks are still ongoing although the pace has become less frequent.
I walked down the staircase for the first time since an emergency drill we had shortly after moving into the building on a hot summer day last summer. A vestibule of our building is attached to a building across the expressway by a pedestrian walkway that is on the third floor. The ceiling of the vestibule was damaged, and water was falling from a broken pipe up near the ceiling. The water was pooling into the vestibule and running out down the stairs to the street. I thought about what it would have been like to be in the pool on the 24th floor during the quake. Maybe I’ll take up tennis instead.
The tsunami warnings had already been broadcast and we were all asked to stay put in the building for our own safety. I looked out at the channel gates in the canals that enclose our Isle and noticed the gates in the closed position for the first time ever. A red lighted sign was warning of the earthquake. Of course, by this time a lot of the Tohoku region had already been destroyed by the tsunami. Yasuhara-san kept up a constant supply of messaging to the local staff, and the building’s disaster prevention center also continued to occasionally broadcast updates.
Eventually we were given the choice of going home or staying at the office. I’m sure some people had to stay at the office because they didn’t have any other option. This choice was sort of a catch-22 though, because almost no trains were running so it would mean a long walk for most people. The average commute time for most people who take mass transportation in the Tokyo metropolitan area is around 1.5 hours.
As I got outside our building, I did see the monorail crawl by at a snail's pace. I considered taking it to Haneda airport since it was still moving. That wouldn’t get me home but it would get me half way there and then I could walk or even maybe get lucky and get a cab home from the airport. But I made the fateful decision to try and get to Shinagawa and see if any of the JR trains were running. It was a fool’s errand.
I can assure you that my one hour commute on the mass transportation system is significantly more convenient than walking home. But I have to also say, I’m really glad I did it. Of course, there was no choice, but this experience really showed the best of the Japanese people’s civility. An oft-used expression in Japan is "shoganai" -- it can’t be helped. And almost everyone had probably already muttered it to themselves or their group as they either started the long trek home or bedded down for a chilly evening in the office. After all, everyone had basically already made the choice of either staying at the office or trying to get home.
Those who chose to walk home just started doing it in a very orderly fashion. No one complained about it, they just started walking home. Actually, the sidewalks were very crowded, but luckily for the pedestrians, the cars couldn’t move. The freeways were closed and so the surface streets were a massive parking lot. So a lot of pedestrians ended up walking through the cars parked in the road. Walking was actually much better than driving in this situation.
I was pretty lucky, as I left Shinagawa before 7 p.m. and crossed the bridge that separated Tokyo from Kawasaki at about 10 p.m. I was home within another 30 minutes; unfortunately there was no power in my neighborhood. So I found my backpacking lantern and boiled a little water so I could have a gourmet dinner of hot ginger tea and Nissin Cup of Noodles. I counted my blessings and felt very lucky indeed.
The most recent news estimates the total death toll at little less then 22,000 souls. This event was a terrible tragedy for Japan. Also, it seems with the latest stories that the impact on Japan’s economy and on the electronics supply chain will add more adversity to the current situation. However, I want to end this story by focusing on something positive. I want to repeat part of Avnet Electronics Market president Harley Feldberg’s message to the Japan team sent out on March 22 where he stated: "I am inspired by the incredible grace and civility the Japanese people are showing the world under the most unimaginable conditions."
This comment is so eloquent and appropriate that it should be repeated. I witnessed scene after scene throughout my walk home and over the next few days that underscore this statement. I saw people who lived on the most popular routes where thousands of people were walking by offering tea, a chair to sit down and rest, and even use of their landline phones. Mobile networks were overloaded and connectivity was almost non-existent that evening. I am inspired by the Japanese people and their strength in the face of adversity and their determination to overcome all obstacles. I know we have ways to go yet, but as another popular expression goes, "Gabarimasho!" Let's do our best!