Nick SchneiderMar 16, 2011

Nick Schneider: Notes on an earthquake

I got the following account of the earthquake in Japan in my inbox this morning from Nick Schneider, a friend and planetary astronomer who had just departed a planetary science conference in Sendai on Friday, March 11, 2011 when the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck. Although not strictly a space science topic I thought his account would be of interest to some of you readers, and also wanted to help Nick acknowledge the help and organization that facilitated his safety during the earthquake and his rather remarkably rapid journey home from such a disaster. The other four western scientists who were attending the conference have all now reached home, even Michael Mendillo, who was at the Sendai airport when the tsunami struck it. I thank Nick for his permission to post his story here. --ESL

Friday: Our conference in Sendai had ended Friday at lunch, and participants were dispersing. I was heading south to Tokyo with Seiko and Ishi, two students from the conference. We were planning a dinner together, maybe catching the nighttime skyline from the top of Tokyo Tower. I dozed off as the train flew silently through the countryside. Next thing I knew, Seiko was shaking me awake saying "Earthquake! Earthquake."

At first it didn't seem like a big deal -- we'd experienced a 7.2 quake at the conference. But the urgency of the stop, and the noises and shuddering of the train as it slowed soon made it clear this was very different. Would the train jump the tracks; or, more accurately, would the tracks jump the train? Would the track ahead be damaged and the train derail? I have seen enough pictures of derailed trains.

Head of the train in the distance
Head of the train in the distance Possible smoke from the engine or dust raised from the earthquake.Image: Nick Schneider

The stopping distance of a bullet train at high speed is alarmingly large. The head of the train came into view out my window, curving around to the left, and disappeared into a grove of trees. A mysterious billow of brown smoke emanated from the behind the trees, presumably the brake pads applied as hard as possible. With a couple of last sharp shakes, the train came to a halt without derailing, all the more amazing since geologists estimate that our part of Japan jumped 8 feet during the event. I've done the Harry Potter ride at Universal studios, but the sensation of a 200-mile-per-hour bullet train doing an emergency stop during an earthquake really gets the heart pounding.

The magnitude of the event hadn't quite sunk in. We were stopped, we were safe, and we wondered: when would the train would start again? But the aftershocks kept coming, and coming, and coming. At first they were interesting. I filmed some, and even recorded some on the cool Mac app SeisMac The train's suspension seemed to resonate with the Earth, so we felt each and every aftershock. With each one, though, we upgraded what the initial shock must have been. And they kept coming, almost continuously.

At first we thought it just meant a long time before we would start again, but then we came to realize how big the initial quake must have been. And that a stopped train safe in the countryside was the least of anyone's problems. Some limited Web access and phone calls confirmed the magnitude, the tsunami, the devastation. Seiko contacted her family in Tokyo -- all fine, and Ishi's too. The news from around the country sank in, and we realized we'd be there some time.

I was able to get email to my wife and to friend and colleague Bob Pappalardo in the US. It was already late there, but Bob chose to lose some sleep and keep track of his colleagues dispersed around Japan. I had emailed my wife, but decided not to call. Why wake someone up to say you're safe, when they don't even know you're in danger? My message would be in her inbox, the first place she'd turn on hearing the bad news. I just hoped no one would call her during the night, since she was going to need all the sleep she could get. I was worried about my colleagues back in Sendai, and another whom I had seen in the Sendai station, headed to the Sendai airport I had seen engulfed by the tsunami in news reports. It would be some time before I knew any of them were safe.

Probably most disasters are experienced this way: long periods of waiting abruptly interrupted by confusing and urgent transitions. We sat in the train for nine hours, holding back on eating or drinking since we had no idea when help would come. The aftershocks were still nearly continuous. After the quake, the snack shop sold out quickly. I hoarded the train-shaped cookies I'd bought as they ran out -- cookies commemorating the recent inauguration of an even higher-speed train. Seiko and I ate half of them after a few hours, and saved the pickled squid for later.

Surreal view from the bus of the evacuation route with reflected images of my fellow evacuees
Surreal view from the bus of the evacuation route with reflected images of my fellow evacuees Image: Nick Schneider

Eventually the busses came, and we crowded aboard not knowing what to expect. After half an hour we arrived at a hotel and were shepherded to their banquet hall. Some people headed for the stack of bedding, others staked out their space against the wall. I headed for the electrical outlet.

We set up for the night, and vast trays of rice balls and tea arrived. A friendly face singled me out in the crowd, asking if eating a rice ball would be OK. Oh yes. I wolfed down the first of many, charged my computer and iPhone, and touched base with everyone I could. (I used all my tricks to stay connected, happy to share them.) I bedded down for the night on my tatami mat. The aftershocks were pretty far apart now. It was well after midnight, and I slept remarkably well. We slept with all the lights on.

Emergency slippers
Emergency slippers Image: Nick Schneider

Saturday: Morning came, and miso soup, rice, and tea. We learned we'd be bussed to the proverbial gymnasium, where we'd meet up with the other busloads from our train. There must have been 500 of us in the gym, dotted across the floor on blue tarps amongst the propane space heaters. In typical Japanese fashion, we all took off our shoes before entering the gym. They provided emergency slippers. They must have had a thousand pairs of emergency slippers. More rice balls. I love rice balls.

The evacuation was conducted in Japanese. (In the whole crowd I found only one other Westerner, a Swiss business man.) A railway representative made periodic announcements: busses would take us to the next stage. Who wanted to go back home north? Who wanted to continue south to Tokyo? I didn't recognize the place names, and Seiko and Ishi couldn't quite make out what was being said over the loudspeaker. Again, no complaints - everyone knew they'd be taken care of. (Well, one woman did ask a bit sharply if the honorable man from the railroad would please repeat the questions for all to hear.) It was quite confusing, still, and the busses were delayed. News came that some friends and colleagues from the conference had reported in safe -- hooray! One was still not heard from, last known to be at Sendai airport.

I had just gotten word of the nuclear danger, and the northbound bus would be headed towards the reactor. The reports on radiation risk from the internet and my wife were more and more alarming. It was beginning to sound like the Japanese officials were more interested in people staying calm than in people staying safe. The Japanese word for "evacuation" is the same as the word for "flee,", but that hardly describes the calm with which they accepted the course of events. As much as I admired the Japanese calm under pressure, I began to wonder if their religion and culture might lead to a different attitude to nuclear risk. "So much for this life," some might say. Worried and tired, Seiko, Ishi and I waited, and drifted off to sleep.

Ishi and Seiko on the next bus ride
Ishi and Seiko on the next bus ride Image: Nick Schneider

The next thing I knew, my Swiss friend was shaking me awake, saying "the busses are almost all gone, we have to get the bus, the bus south!" We grabbed our belongings, and rushed to the parking lot, where a single bus remained. A place name was shouted to us -- was it the place to the south, or the destination past the reactor? It was the right bus! But full - we'd blown it! No, wait, there are seats in the aisle that fold down. We were on! And moving away from the reactor.

The highways were closed, so we slowly crisscrossed the countryside on side roads. I kept checking the angle of the sun: were we really headed south? I figured out which way the reactor was, and tried to get a sense of the wind direction. But the farmland, the hills, the mountains were distractingly beautiful. Was it appropriate to enjoy them, to take a picture? No, it didn't seem right during an evacuation. It still wasn't clear how it would all come out. Technically, I had a flight out of Tokyo that evening, but I wasn't going to make it.

The bus let us out at the northernmost operating train station, whose name still escapes me. Railway workers rushed us to the train, issuing us each tiny slips of paper explaining why we wouldn't have tickets at the end of the line. Few trains or perhaps just the one train was running. We dashed through the empty station, hauling our luggage through a seemingly endless maze of stairways and passages. My friend Seiko did the whole evacuation in style: high heeled boots and flawless makeup, the whole way. Up and down, up and down. If she could do it, so could I.

Seiko celebrating our arrival in Tokyo. No rice balls!
Seiko celebrating our arrival in Tokyo. No rice balls! Image: Nick Schneider

We made the train. As it approached Tokyo, Kouichi, another student guardian angel, phoned to say he'd found me a hotel and even changed my reservation to the next available flight two days later. (How did he even do that?) I started to imagine some light at the end of the tunnel. We pulled into Tokyo, the last hour of the original trip having turned into nearly 30 hours. Kouichi met us at the station, got me checked in to the hotel, and we headed out for a celebratory dinner of local specialties. On the way he made a point of showing me the train station I'd use in two days to get to the airport, and the street I'd use the next day to get to the famous sites he'd been urging me to visit. He had it all planned out all along. We feasted, we toasted, and we parted ways.

Sunday: It was to be a normal day, for me at least, and I hoped it was the beginning of recovery for Japan. Tokyo hadn't been directly affected much, and people were about their daily routines. My day exploring Atsakusa and Shibuya confirmed that my knowledge of Japan was just the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg. But those are stories for another day. (Well, just one: strangers came up to me on the street and thanked me for the aid America was already giving.)

Our last companion had checked in safe from the Sendai airport after a harrowing experience. I bought some Hokusai "wave" prints for my two tsunami-surviving colleagues. I went to bed with a belly full of exquisite eel, anticipating another leisurely half day exploring Tokyo before taking the express train to Narita airport less than an hour away.

Monday: My phone rang at 6:30 in the morning -- never good news. Reactor? Earthquake? No, Kouichi said: rolling power outages would stop the trains at 11am. Get moving, he said. How does one repay this kind of act? I moved, though probably not fast enough.

I arrived at the station at 9 - surely early enough. But people were running and yelling "Narita." I couldn't get the ticket machine to work! Nothing! More yelling. I went to the ticket gate, showed my empty hands and shrugged. The railway worker thrust another of those "get out of town free" papers into my hand and exhorted me, almost telepathically, to run for that train. I made it with hardly a moment to spare, still wondering why I didn't just wait for the next train. Over the next two hours (and 42 stops) it became clear that there wasn't another train - this wasn't the 1-hour express but the two-hour-plus local, and even it wasn't going to arrive by the 11am power outage. But we made it to the airport, and I made my flight home.

Now I sit in the relative safety of a metal tube seven miles high hurtling through the air at 600mph, thousands of miles from land. These risks are at least familiar. Even up here I sense aftershocks - but I really it's just the pounding of my heart. (Now I'm back on "terra firma" in Colorado, and have stopped sensing aftershocks.)

I owe such a debt to my student friends, and I feel such sorrow and connection for those affected in the north. However alarming this experience was for me (and my family and friends), there are surely hundreds of thousands of stories scarier still, many still unresolved, and not all with happy endings. The death toll there is remarkable for two reasons: first because it's so high, send second because it's so low. Skyscrapers did not tumble, and untold thousands remembered their lifelong training and ran to higher ground before the tsunami hit. The Japanese are an exceptional people. I plan on helping via, and ask you to consider helping out in some way. It's not really about the money, it's about the world helping Japan. They'll know, and it matters. If Sendai recovers, they'll host another conference this summer that they've been planning for years, and I'll get to see my friends again. If recovery is slower, it'll be all the more important to keep involved with them as they struggle back. They don't give up easily.

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