Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rockin' it in Narita

           I arrived in Narita around 9:20 am on a flight from a Hiroshima.  I got off the small plane, walked into the domestic arrival terminal for All Nippon Airline and followed the trail to the international connection area.  I was surprised at the line.  Usually the only line was four people waiting to go through security.  This time the room was full and going out into the hall.  The 40 minute line gave me no trouble because my layover had me in Narita for the next six and a half hours—so I thought.

            My original flight schedule had a layover of 90 minutes.  That flight would have doubled the cost of my trip and the government can’t have that—for a number of reasons.  But I would have been to Dulles at 9am Friday morning.  And I would have only heard about the quake upon landing.

            In light of the length of my stay, I had plenty of time to finish my homework and read.  It also gave me an experience I haven’t felt in a long time.

            At 2:45 I started to my gate from the free wi-fi spot provided by Google.  I passed the McDonald’s and noticed several people were starting to panic…and I seem to be a little unsteady—maybe I was a little more tired than I thought.  A few women screamed.
Then it clicked: Earthquake!
I stood there thinking “Why are you screaming?  It is just a little quake.”  After about 15 seconds, I realized that this was not a small quake, but a more serious one.
The International Terminal at Narita Airport is designed in an open fashion with plenty of open space and glass art walls with square couches, and tall glass windows common to ever large airport in the world that I have ever been to looking out at the airfield.  There are several pillars, both ornamental and real, covered in tile and not.  Moving walk ways, caf├ęs and restaurants litter the inner parts of the airport.  There is no real safe place to be in an earthquake, however.
When I realized how serious the quake was, about the time it sounded like the building was bouncing to a rap song, several dozen people were cowering between the large glass windows looking out to the airfield and the lowered ceiling of the hall.  Next to or near the windows was not a great idea in my mind.  What if it shattered?  Death by giant glass shards.  Closed casket funeral.

What if the ceiling fell down?  Um…crap.  Damned no matter if the building collapsed on me.

I leaned against what I hoped was a load bearing pillar assuming that it would hold even if the building began to fall around me.  The tile was cool and probably wouldn’t shatter like the decorative glass walls five feet away.  Two minutes or so later the shaking stopped.
My first thought once the shaking stopped was I hope my flight isn’t cancelled.  Then I began to call Jessica.  No go.  Text?  Nope.  Sh!t.  Facebook and email worked.  Thank you, God.

I continued my way to my gate as fast as possible taking pictures with my phone of some of the damage.  On the way CNN was reporting a 7.9 quake.  Several lights and tiles had fallen or shaken loose.  Shops were closing and an announcement was starting to come over the PA.  At this point, one reported death as we watched the tsunami hit Sendai.

Yes, the airport officials were letting us know that an earthquake had just happened, in case someone was mistaken about the current circumstances.

Several small aftershocks rocked us while we watched the news.  Then the large aftershock hit.  I was sitting next to another pillar watching the ceiling.  It moved around quite a bit, but I’m sure it was designed that way.
(We are headed outside at this point)

At this point someone decided it was much better for us to be outside in case another large quake took down the building.  Better us to drown in a tsunami that be crushed in a quake.  At least, that seemed to be the thought after seeing footage of people stranded on the Sendai Airport roof.

We stood outside for three hours before they brought buses for us to sit in.  The workers had supplied us with blankets and towels to keep us warm; plastic sheets and couches to sit on in the meantime.  Rain was coming and that meant we needed cover.  Hence the buses. 

By this time we shuffled into the bus, I’d formed a survivor group with a Navy officer reservist from Portland Oregon returning from an exercise in Korea, an American student/teacher who taught English in Hiroshima but returning for good to the states, and a contractor from the same exercise in Korea. 

K, the Navy officer, is a public affairs officer and spent the last few weeks in a tent and hotel in Seoul on a large scale exercise.  She spent most of her naval career on the enlisted side before her direct commissioning.  I never got her rank, and she never got mine.  I think it was an unspoken deal to not mention rank.  It was a way to ensure that conversation and comfort could be maintained without the strictures of formalities. 

M, the contractor was there as well and flew in from Seoul with K.  I know he served in the military, but I never got what service and how long.  I suspect he retired from the enlisted side of the Navy or Army and moved smoothly into a contractor position where he enjoys himself much more.  He was given a grueling work schedule in Korea for the exercise.  He was talking to his wife on Skype when the 7.1 aftershock hit and we were evacuated from the building. 

K was headed home to just outside Portland, Oregon.  M, was head back to San Francisco for his next leg of the trip. 

L, the student/teacher, spent the last 18 months in Japan teaching English at a university in Hiroshima.  She’s doesn’t want to teach anymore and her time at the US college seems to be up.  She’s at that next stage and the ever worrisome place of “what do I do now?”  Her Japanese is great—as it should be from living immersed in Japan for so long and having a BA in the language.  Her English was without expression for the most part, while her Japanese was very expressive.  L came to life speaking in that other language.  Without knowing what she said, I could understand her emotions.  She did not come across as drool, as is easily the case with her English.  L isn’t drool, just has the tendency to sound like it.

Much of the seven hours after the quake was spent waiting to hear what would happen with us.  Were we to get on a flight out?  Were we to go to a hotel to get a flight tomorrow?  Would we be allowed to leave the airport? Or would we camp the night in the airport.  I suspect K and M spent the night in the airport.  I hope they got on their flight out.

We’d had access to the internet via my iPhone and then the wi-fi signal we were able to get from the building while sitting in the bus.  We updated Facebook to make sure families wouldn’t worry and to make arrangements for our changing situation.

36 people dead according to the internet.  250 miles Northeast of Tokyo.  Sendai had been swamped.  Tsunami warnings all the way to Hawaii.  Iwakuni was having alarms and Jessica was okay.

At hour 6 after the quake we were given water, candy and Ritz crackers.  And the United flights were tallied up.  That was probably the biggest hope for everyone on the bus I was on.  Everyone on my bus had been in the United/ANA/Continental area of the airport, so we were getting itchy hearing that a representative wanted to know what flights we were on.  The plane I was on had been sitting at the gate preparing to load passengers and luggage when the quake hit. 

It turned out that almost half the bus was going to DC, including L and Tech, an 18 yr old female Chinese student attending Virginia Tech.  When the Asian man sitting next to me heard that I was going to Virginia as well, he asked that I make sure Tech got to Virginia Tech safely.  He understood I couldn’t get her to Tech, but I could make sure that she met up with her friend in Virginia.  I assume that he is a friend of the family or a caring countryman of the girl, but not her father.  She told me that this is the first time she is traveling alone and the first time to Narita ever. 

48 people dead.  Tsunami warnings for Oki and most of the Pacific coast of the US.  Hawaii could expect the wave at around 3am Hawaii time.  13 foot wave!

At about hour 7, I noticed movement.  People were getting up and moving around inside the limited area inside the building considered safe and the other buses.  Reps ran out to some of the other buses and people started moving to another set of buses and loading up.  Two full buses left towards where my plane was.  Hope! 

Finally, someone came to my bus. 

“Please be my flight!  Please!  Please!”  Everybody’s thought.  “Just let it be my flight.”

“Everyone on United flight 898 to Washington DC, please come with me.”

“BINGO!”  I won!  I think.

It wasn’t until we were standing in another line waiting to get another bus that I thought to ask L “Did he say we were getting on the plane?”

“I think so.  I think he said that,” L responded. 

I hoped she was right, but I didn’t recall the rep saying anything about a plane.  I couldn’t see any other reason for separating the passengers from that United flight.  But I’m not in control of the situation.  What is common sense for me is not always common sense for others.

My Marine leadership training has been kicking in the entire time.  “Keep your troops informed.”  It eases fear and keeps the troops calm—er.  I hate not knowing what is going on.  As a leader, even in an office, I try to keep my Marines informed of the situation and updates and changes.  That wasn’t the case here.  Granted, I know the situation was developing and plenty of the real decisions were being made about the airport by important people Not at the airport—and if the Reps didn’t know, it is because they weren’t told.

I frantically sent a Facebook message and email to Jessica asking her to call my hotel and let them know I’d be checking in late…maybe.  I figured if I wasn’t getting on a plane right now, then I’d be able to call myself when I got to wherever I was going.

I think my final Facebook post was: getting on the plane now.  We barely got off the ground in time.  We had mere minutes before the pilots absolutely had to take their federally mandated, unwaiveable break.  If the pilots took their break, we weren’t leaving the ground that night.  Once the hatch shut and the last passenger parked her rump, the pilots got us rolling while the aircrew efficiently explained our safety and emergency procedures.  We made it.  Barely.  The last United flight out of Narita and the only United Flight out after the quake.
Yes, there was spontaneous applause when we made it off the ground.

Right now, 29 hours after the quake, the death toll estimate is at 1000 people.  A good friend is still waiting to hear from her family in Sendai.  My family and friends have checked in with me.  Iwakuni saw a 5 inch “tsunami.”  Hawaii felt barely anything.  Nuclear power plants have had radiation leaks in the region.  The Quake is the 5th most powerful on record.  And I made it out on the last flight before Narita was shut down indefinitely—for the night.
I feel extremely lucky and fortunate.