Tōhoku earthquake: a live blog from a shaking building

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On Friday March 11, 2011, I was at work in Hiroo, Tokyo. As editorial director of Time Out Tokyo, I was most probably tidying up for the weekend – reading the weekend roundup articles that my colleagues put together religiously each week, trying to decide how to spend an average springtime Saturday.

What I remember most clearly about the Tōhoku earthquake that struck that afternoon and triggered the tsunami was that I could hear it. This may have been my imagination playing tricks, but I remember hearing the earth growl, right before my iMac started to wander across the desk of its own accord.

I also remember, all too vividly, the heartbreaking pleas that were read out over the radio that night. Large parts of the normal communication systems were down, so the Japanese staff pulled out a wireless (and I use that term mainly because it seemed so much like a scene from an old war movie), over which the announcer read out names of people in Tohoku searching for loved ones that they’d never see again.

In the month following the earthquake, we stopped functioning as a normal Time Out office might. What would the point have been? The staff and I worked endless days trying to keep the English-speaking population of the city up to date with necessary news, with reports on how to lend a hand to the stricken areas up north, on how to best tackle ensuing summer of power outages. A few really great people were involved in getting all of that together and helping us put the news out there. They include James Hadfield, Ai Kato, Akiko Toya, Shane Wadleigh and the legendary Hiroko Tabuchi (whose “Hiroko Power” on Twitter gave us the kind of organic reach that many newspapers only dream about) – some of whom I met only in the days following the earthquake and are now a fond part of a harrowing memory.

In the years since I left Time Out, the website structure has changed so the original ‘live blog from a shaking building’ has been removed. I am posting a copy of it here for posterity – a snapshot from a day I imagine many people will never forget.

Tōhoku earthquake live report

The first shaking started about 30 minutes ago. It still hasn’t stopped.

I’m writing this from the Time Out office, a ground floor room at the base of a relatively new building. Across the road there’s a tenement block. It’s swaying horrifically – so much so, in fact, that it looks like a miniature, as though it’s been subjected to tilt shift photo technology. I can’t quite compute seeing a building doing that.

As I write, I can’t get through to anyone. Nothing in the immediate vicinity has collapsed, but we’re unable to get direct news from our friends and families – all the phones are down. The streets are full of people. What sound like air raid sirens are going off across the city. A colleague is on a train on the way to Narita Airport. He says it has stopped and that it’s swaying in its tracks. The Tokyo folk in my office, born and raised in this city, say they’ve never felt anything like this before. They’re jittery, which just makes me even more jittery.

We’re getting unconfirmed reports from across the city – burning buildings in Odaiba, tsunamis crashing into Iwate. The only thing that seems to be working is Twitter, which is proving itself to be a doom-ladened rumour mill. 7.9 on the Richter scale, say the reports. Don’t suppose that’s in Tokyo, though. It’s going to have been much worse elsewhere.

The aftershocks are almost as strong as the initial quake. This is no Christchurch, but we live with the daily fear here in Tokyo that, any day, it could be. For the moment, we can only hope that nobody is badly hurt.

This building is still on the move. Books, computers, coffee cups – none of them are where they should be. Our friends have sent in photos of an entire library emptied across the floor. Most people are back in the building, but they are on the edge of their chairs. I’m halfway under the desk.

We’re hearing now that Narita Airport has closed. We’re hearing it on an old radio. It feels like I’m listening to a war report.

Just seeing the reports that Onahama City in Fukushima Prefecture has been hit by a huge wave. A 32ft wave is feared in Iwate.

Back in Tokyo, the rumblings seem to have stopped, but eight large fires are reported to have broken out across the city. Sumida-ku, Chuo-Ku, Ota-ku, Arakawa-ku, and more. The roof of Kudan Kaikan has collapsed.

The rumblings have now stopped. Amazing that they really were rumblings – you could hear the second big earthquake growling before the tables started moving. Two quakes appear to have hit Japan simultaneously – Miyagi Prefecture and then Ibaraki. Warnings of a 32ft tsunami are doing the rounds.

People are arriving back at the office from across the city – all of them own their own cars. Getting anywhere in Tokyo by public transport this evening is not going to be easy.

The Richter Scale level has been shifted up to 8.9.

The thing that strikes me immediately is how unprepared the people around me seem to be. This city has been waiting for ‘The Big One’ since 1923. The shelves of stores like Tokyu Hands are full of emergency stock, and yet, nobody I know seems to have prepared an emergency pack. Nobody has any good idea of what to do. As the first quake hit, I followed my colleagues outside where we stood on a mud patch surrounded by old buildings. Nobody was sure if that was the right place to be or not. Some said they were told, as children, to get under the desk, yet nobody was willing to take their own advice. This may prove to be the biggest problem should a massive quake hit the city directly.

The aftershocks continue. I don’t think Tokyo will be sleeping comfortably tonight.

Aftershocks are still keeping us on edge, but our accountant has just turned up, which suggests that Tokyo life is already getting back to normal. Phones are still down and bus is the only form of transportation. Awful scenes from the North, though, with farms, trucks, ships, homes… all washed out to sea.

We can consider ourselves lucky in many ways – the Christchurch quake was considerably weaker at 6.3 than today’s (currently being reported as 8.8-8.9), and – as far as we know – Tokyo seems to have got off lightly. For those in Kamaishi, however, this is undoubtedly going to be a sad time. No death toll announced yet, but the mood here is sombre.

With the phone network still jammed, we’ve just been told that public pay phones have been made free so that people can contact their families. Offices around Hiroo are closing early, but people are finding it impossible to get home. Buses are the only option. Taxis are thin on the ground.

There’s a special message service in operation if you want to check on missing loved ones. Dial 171, leave a message with your home number. Anyone who knows your home number can check on your safety.

Free phones are now operating in the following areas: Fukushima, Yamagata, Iwate, Miyagi, Akita, Aomori.

Tokyo is now moving again. Everyone still on edge.

Google has started a Person Finder service, in case you’re fearful for loved ones.

Disturbing news coming in off the radio that Disneyland is quickly flooding.

Seconds ago our phones started bleeping their pre-quake warnings. Fukushima and Ibaraki are on alert again. Everyone is sitting really quietly, almost as if they expect to be able to hear the next quake hit.

Meiji University’s Liberty Tower has opened its their to the public. People can share information and watch the news from there.

Haneda Airport has cancelled all departures. Arrivals are still being accepted.

JR has announced that they will be running no more train services today. Shinjuku Station has opened a safe shelter nearby. Tokyo appears to be on high alert.

25 people are reported to have been injured in the earlier roof collapse at Kudan Kaikan. More news as and when we get it. Tremors still occurring.

While there have been no major casualties in Tokyo, thousands are stranded tonight as taxis and hotels find themselves oversubscribed. The following public spaces have been opened to people unable to get home.

Tukiji Honganji, Shinbashi Daiichi Hotel lobby, Ikebukuro Rikkyo University, Shinagawa Prince Hotel lobby, Shibuya & Omotesando Aoyama Gakuin University gymnasium.

Tokyo Tower takes a hit. Picture here.

It has been a tiring afternoon, but the camaraderie in this city is palpable. Loads of businesses and companies offering shelter to the stranded folk who can’t get home (including Time Out Tokyo staff!). We’ve tried our best to provide a list of everything people might need to get through the evening in the capital, but we can only wish that we were able to help the folk up north. The death toll is growing and the damage is gigantic. News has just arrived that the Ginza line may be up and running again, which is a positive sign at least.

Ah! The phones are back on!

We’re told that over 40 earthquakes have been reported today in Japan alone, all over a magnitude of 6. We’d want to confirm that before we believed it, but we’re more than willing to believe that there are plenty more aftershocks expected across the country this weekend. Stay safe!

Listening to the radio announcements – people trying to get in touch with loved ones. A long, unending processions of names and pleas. Awful to hear. Feeling awfully useless sitting here.

As the day approaches midnight, we’re starting to see the pacific coast of the country light up red on the NHK tsunami maps. The damage is not yet known, but it looks like a country under attack. From the north, Miyagi Prefecture, we’re seeing raging fires spreading out of control. The mood in this office has gone from adrenalin-fuelled determination to a kind of subdued despair.

No rest for Tokyo tonight. The aftershocks are long and worrying. Every slight movement prompts us to get up and prepare to run outside, as if that might be the safer place to be. As we’ve seen with the horrific scenes in Sendai, not even the great wide open can guarantee security.

Yet another large aftershock slams into Tokyo. My colleague, born and raised in the capital, tells me: ‘We had earthquake training at school when we were kids, but I was too scared to use it today. I thought I was used to earthquakes…’

Doesn’t this last sentence speak volumes?

The most amazing footage coming out of Tokyo of earthquake-proof skyscrapers doing what they’re designed to do. (See video at the top of this blogpost.)

Our photographer has been located after a four-hour trek across the city. He sends these reports:

‘Traffic was jammed at every main street and interaction; side walks were in the same state, usually with everyone moving in the same direction leaving little to no space if you tried to travel against the current.

‘Despite all that, people seemed reasonably calm and friendly. Groups gathered at combinis, but in general people were on the move.

‘At the stations lots of people were just waiting; sitting, or standing in lines.

‘Bus station in Shibuya was absolutely packed solid with people waiting and, strangely for a Friday, restaurants and bars were all but empty.

‘In Shimokitazawa, a lot of people where waiting in the station, and some of them of them trying to get through the gate. It wasn’t clear if they would just wait inside or if eventually a train would run.

‘Trains on the Inokashira line were parked at each station, triggering the traffic gates at each crossing. Car traffic was blocked and people were running across the track, pushing under the gates.’

We’re expecting the pictures some time in the morning.

There is an archive of Shane Wadleigh’s Tōhoku earthquake Photojournalism here. The photo at the top of this page was taken by Shane and originally appeared on Time Out Tokyo’s website.

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