The day my world started shaking

I’ve started and stopped writing this since the beginning of June.  The earthquakes happened on April 14th and 16th… When I think back to those days I still get emotionally caught up in what happened.  I’m almost to the three month mark since the big quake happened and I’m still sleeping on the floor with the light near my door on every night.

I’m hoping talking about it, detailing everything that happened and leaving nothing out will bring me some sort of catharsis.

So, here goes nothing… The day my world started shaking…

It started off the same way every other evening did.  As soon as 9:16 rolls around I head out of work and make my way home.  I work in downtown Kumamoto, so I take the B-Line tram home to Shinmachi.  I headed over to the tram stop, just enough time to get into line when the B-Line tram pulled in.  I hopped up, scanning my monthly pass and taking a seat.  Since the B-Line goes towards North Kumamoto station not many people use it at night.

We headed off for the next stop, Kumamoto Castle and City Hall.  I smiled at the guy sitting across the tram from me as we sat at the Kumamoto Castle stop for what seemed like a long time.  Finally, the conductor said ‘Thank you for waiting, we’re going now’ and this loud rumble echoed through the tram and it began to shake.  At the time, I thought that the tram was broken, but then the shaking got more violent and we were rocking back and forth.  It felt like at one point we were going to tip over.  In the middle of the confusion, with ladies screaming and my heart pounding, my phone started yelling at me.

地震です。地震です。

(Earthquake! Earthquake!)

Little did I know at the time that those words would be my constant companion for the next two days.  As my phone started shouting I rolled my eyes and said to myself, ‘I know.’

As the quake subsided, I sat on the tram with other people, confused, but not too stressed out.  In terms of earthquakes I had experienced before (two baby ones in Fukuoka and one in Osaka) this was clearly larger, but I didn’t realize at the time just how large it was.  We looked around at each other, nervous smiles on our faces, listening to the conductor.  At first, it seemed as if the tram would move soon, so I stayed seated, waiting to head home.  After about five minutes he said the tram wouldn’t be going anywhere and told us all we’d have to get off.  I exchanged another smile with the guy across from me, who reassured me everything was alright as I got off the tram before heading off into the night.

While I was on the tram I started to receive a flurry of messages.  As more and more people messaged me to check in (about 40!) I gradually came to realize that this was a lot worse than what I had first thought.  The earthquake happened at 9:26, by 9:27 my trainer had already messaged me, asking if I was ok.  As countless more messages came in, I felt the worry begin to set in.  I started to move through the city, and saw a ton more people than usual.  Everyone was walking around confused and looking at the damage, trying to figure out a way to get home.  Transportation had stopped, 100+ people were stranded outside the bus center, and hundreds more were on trains and trams and couldn’t go anywhere.

I tried to get in touch with my co-workers, but neither of them have mobile data.  So, I started to walk home, getting more nervous as I walked down the street.

When I saw this picture was when it really hit me that this was a very powerful and damaging earthquake:

The sidewalk trying to pull apart.

The sidewalk was trying to pull apart as the fault lines moved.  There were spots like this all over the city.

I finally got ahold of one of my co-workers and we decided to meet up for a drink because we had experienced our first major earthquake.  She had been at the convenience store, checking out when the quake hit.  She didn’t know what to do, so she held onto the counter, locking eyes with the screaming Lawson employee across from her.  Others in the store darted for the doorway as wine bottles crashed, splintering their sweet nectar all over the floor.  “Not the 赤ワイン” became one of the phrases we used in the coming days, lamenting about all of the spilled wine we saw everywhere.

As I headed back into the city, I walked along Shimotori.  I was shocked by the different places that were damaged and those that weren’t.  I saw a man sitting outside, holding his foot because it had been cut by a shard of glass.  I saw a shop where the entire front window shattered when something fell through it.  And, honestly, I was shocked it wasn’t being looted.  It might be a terrible thing to say, but in America when there’s a disaster, the first thing people do is loot.  And no one was taking anything, even though all of the shop clerks had gone home for the evening.  Some people stopped to take photographs, others just to point and talk about it, but no one, not a single soul, walked up and tried to steal something.

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I stopped to take this image, along with many other people, because it gave me a smile in the face of something that was quite severe.  At this time, I still didn’t know the extent of the damage or the lives lost, so I was trying to have a positive outlook.  Finally, after what felt like forever, I met up with my co-worker and we tried to find a bar… not realizing that every bar had probably lost their entire stock.  Every place was closed, so we settled on 7-11.  There were a ton of people there when we arrived, so we headed in and grabbed some food, some booze, ice cream and water.  We sat outside with a group of girls, sometimes making small talk and crouching together when aftershocks hit.

I remember vividly sitting there with my coworker and thinking out loud that it had been a while since we’d had a ‘shicky-shakey.’  As soon as the words left my mouth, a large aftershock ripped through the area, everyone screaming and bending down.  Ahhh, karma.

After a while, we decided to head to my apartment to stay for the night.  Every elevator had been knocked out of service and my coworker lives on the 13th floor.  We decided the fourth floor was much better than 13th, so we started the 30 minute walk to my house.  We stopped to assess and talk about the damage, the walk mostly uneventful.

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Broken glass littered the streets in many places, and we had to be careful to not walk to close to buildings in case more glass or objects fell down.

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Of course, by the time we got close to my house I had to use the bathroom and we needed to refuel.  I was shocked to see just how far the earthquake had pushed these heavy shelves.  We stopped at another convenience store, but unlike the 7-11 above, they hadn’t cleaned up the wine aisle.  We lamented the fallen bottles, sad they had met such a useless end.

Not the 赤ワイン!

We were close to my house when another pretty big aftershock hit.  We were walking down the middle of a side street with another family when it ripped through the ground.  All of us crouched to the ground, covering our heads.  The cars nearby swayed back and forth violently as did the power lines above.  After it passed, we looked at the family, asking if they were ok and reassuring we were ok, before heading forward.

Finally, we reached my house.  And as we walked up the steps, I dreaded what I was going to see.  I had gone to Costco earlier that week and had procrastinated putting away the things I’d bought.  I had planned on cooking breakfast for dinner, eating the sausages I had bought and cleaning up my house.  Plans that quickly went out the window after the earthquake.  I opened my door, holding my breath…

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Croissants down.  Cooking utensils down.  Blender and Crock pot down.  Everything down.

I have a lot of stuff.  I’ve been in Japan for 2+ years and I love to be in the kitchen.  And it was all over the floor.  The fridge also popped open, meaning it had been open for about 2.5 hours by the time I got home.  The waffles were salvageable, but the ice cream and everything in the fridge was not.  And the milk.  The milk fell out, spilling all over everything near the fridge.  I didn’t take a picture of the bathroom, but I’ve always left the lid of my toilet open.  Now, I don’t.  Towels, toothpaste, floss, nail clippers… everything fell into the tiny bowl.  Water was all over the floor.  I looked at my apartment with dread, knowing the clean up would be killer.

I knew the first thing I had to do when I got home was call my Mom.  If she found out about this through the news or another person I knew she would flip out until she heard from me, so I dialed her on Skype.  As the phone was ringing, I started to pick up some of the things in my house when another giant shock hit.  This was at 12:03 in the morning, just about 2 and half hours after the initial quake.  I had no idea what to do in a home, so my coworker yelled at me to get to the doorway, snatched my arm as I got close and pulled me to her.  My assistant manager had just visited us to see if were were ok and headed over to my other coworkers apartment.  We stood in the doorway, clutching each other as it subsided.  Then screamed out to my assistant manager.  She popped her head out of my coworkers apartment and said she was ok.  After I calmed down a bit, I headed back in, to see I was connected to my Mom via Skype.  I thought she’d picked up, but I had actually reached her voicemail.  She had recorded the entire earthquake in a voicemail.  I said I was ok, that I would call her later and that she had just heard me in an earthquake.  I’m sure she’ll remember that voicemail for a long time to come.

After a large earthquake, it’s recommended to stay outside, so we headed to the parking lot across the street.  A few more shocks hit, but nothing too sizable.  I took more calls and answered more messages as the night wore on, but sleep began to creep into my mind.  But I knew, without a doubt, I didn’t want to be in my apartment.  So we contacted our assistant manager and headed over to her house.  Her family welcomed us with open arms, fed us (it was delicious!) and we drank before falling asleep.

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The apartment building next to my assistant manager’s house had suffered severe damage.  The entire front of the building came off and it looked extremely dangerous.  I slept fitfully that night, waking up with every shake.  I’ll never forget waking up at about 5 a.m. when another large shock hit.  My assistant manager and I clung to each other, pulling pillows over our heads.  As it subsided, we looked over at my coworker, and she was snoring.  We both envied her a bit at that moment.

The next morning, we didn’t have to work, but we had to clean up our school.  We knew there was going to be stuff EVERY WHERE, and we’d have to prepare for more aftershocks or the possibility of another big quake (again, at this time we didn’t know there was a main shock coming).  So, after a quick shower and some food, we headed off to the school.  The whole team arrived, ready to clean up and get the school in order.  We took the chance to scrub some shelves that were empty (always a positive side to things).  After 2 hours, everything was on the floor and organized so that when we returned to work the next day there wouldn’t be any danger.

Now that we had cleaned the school we had to turn our attention to our apartments.  We headed first to my coworker’s place, the one who lives on the 13th floor.  We had to climb all of those stairs… Never again.  We got to her room and saw a few things that had fallen and a few places where the molding had pulled away a bit, but nothing too serious.  We got her all cleaned up, removing all of the shards of broken bowls and plates, before heading off to my place.  My other coworker lives in the same building (mentioned that already I believe), so we stopped in at his house first.  His toaster oven got smashed in the earthquake, and his bottles of sake.  We assessed the damage to his place before heading over to mine.  I knew I’d have a long day of cleaning up, so I was thankful they helped me a bit.  I got to work, scrubbing the milk and cleaning the bathroom thoroughly.  I threw out many things from the earthquake, something I really hadn’t planned for.  After a while, things started to come together, and I felt like things were returning to normal a bit.  Every so often a quake would hit, but nothing major. I decided to cook dinner for the three of us, so we headed to the local store to buy some ingredients.  I made taco rice and we played Uno for a bit until we all got tired.

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Next to my assistant manager’s house, in the day light.

After my coworkers left I started to feel strange, so I called some friends and talked to them on Skype for a while.  We talked about the earthquake in-depth and how I was doing.  I started to feel a fear creep into my mind, but I tried to shrug it off.  Eventually I got to the point where I wanted to get into bed.  I had pulled my futon from my loft to the floor, setting a comfortable place for me to try and get some rest.  I left all of the lights on, prepared my backpack just in case and left my socks on.  Something just didn’t feel right.  I continued to talk to a friend until about midnight when I knew I should try to rest.  I had an early morning the next day and needed to be able to work without trouble.  I shut off the room light but left the kitchen and doorway light on.  I looked up the Tohoku earthquake, and read for the first time after the idea of a foreshock.  And then my mind started racing.  What if yesterday was the foreshock and a main shock was coming.  My heart started to pound faster, and I knew I wouldn’t sleep for a while.  I started messaging my coworker who also couldn’t sleep.  I’m thankful I was.

1:25 a.m. 地震です。地震です。

It started off with a loud bang and a rumble.  I knew something was different, this wasn’t a normal aftershock.  I got to my feet, fear coursing through my veins when my whole world rocked.  I don’t remember much of what happened, the details are blurry.  I lost my footing and I fell forward, smacking my head into my table.  With stars in my eyes, conflicting voices in my head (‘Get to a doorway’ – ‘Get under a table’) I did the only thing I could think of, ‘get out.’  I headed for the door, falling, struggling, trying to get there with tears blurring my vision.  I think I ran into the bathroom door handle… I think something fell on my foot… I don’t remember exact details.  I do remember getting to the doorway and fumbling with the locks.  Even on a good day I have a hard time locking/unlocking my door… throw in an earthquake that’s trying to knock me down and it was damn near impossible.  Finally, with a bit of luck, I managed to wrench the door open and took a second to look back at what I was leaving.

My apartment was twisting, the doorway twisted so much the inner pieces popped out.  I can’t scrub that image from my mind, no matter how much I try to.  As I was watching my apartment twist and turn the lights went out.  I wanted to scream, but I knew that wouldn’t solve anything.  As soon as the first quake subsided enough, I threw my shoes on and ran out the door.

Big mistake.  I went to my coworkers, worried as hell.  I started pounding on his door, but everything outside was eerily silent.  I could hear him from the inside, shock laced through his voice.  I was crying, screaming if he was ok, when another shock echoed through the city.  He got me inside and under his table in a flash, and kept me there.  I was shaking, my head was pounding, I could feel pain creeping into every part of my body.  I called my trainer right away, impressed when he picked up quickly.

I couldn’t form much of a coherent sentence, I was crying so hard.  Tears dripped onto the screen of the phone as I repeated the same thing to him over and over again.

I can’t be here.  I can’t do this.  I don’t want to be here anymore.

Like a broken record I kept going… At first he thought I was joking, he couldn’t tell if I was laughing or crying.  But as the earthquake reached Fukuoka he realized what was happening and tried to calm me down as best he could.  I wasn’t giving him much coherence, so he switched to talking to my coworker.  At one point I was freaking out about my other coworker, so I tried to call her with no luck.  (Damn having no mobile data!)  I called my trainer back, and he talked us through the rest of the large shakes, until it had subsided enough for us to make our way outside.  We ran down the stairs, other tenants also heading out to the street.  As soon as I reached the second landing, I heard my name from the street.  My assistant manager lives a minute away and had come to collect us.  I got to the ground floor and collapsed onto her, sobbing.  She wrapped me in a blanket and consoled me like a child, making sure I was ok.  She got me to my feet and helped me start walking down the street.  I let her blindly lead me, not caring where we going, just happy that I was with someone.

We were heading to an evacuation shelter down the road.  On the way an aftershock hit, everyone stopping, some screams ringing out through the chilly night air.  I crouched to the ground, someone covering my head.  A few moments later we were up and hurrying faster down the road to the local elementary school gymnasium.  We got to the grounds and I sat down, clutching my assistant manager’s legs as sobs shuddered through my body.  At this point, everything hurt.  This was when she snapped this photo.

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She snapped the photo to send in our work group chat to let everyone know how I was.  While I was huddled under my coworkers table I had sent our group chat a message that we were together and that I had hit my head.  I’m thankful she took this photo so I can have a constant reminder of what being unprepared and ill-equipped to handle natural disaster’s brings.

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This was how I truly felt at the moment, not realizing I was the one crying.  Looking back now it’s obvious to see, but at the time I remember that anger welling up in me.  (It’s getting harder and harder to write about this now…)

Eventually we made our way into the gymnasium and they sat me down.  The first thing they did was put a cooling patch on my head and when a woman came around asking about injuries everyone in our group shot their hands into the air.  She came over and said I should be ok, but should probably see a doctor if it still hurts/gets worse.  She gave me a patch for my arm and headed off to the next person.  The group I was with tried talking to me a bit, before pushing me to lie down, covering me up with a blanket.

At this point, I’m still in contact with my trainer and really worried about my coworker.  He finally receives a call from her using her American phone number and tells her to make her way to us.  This caused me to panic as it’s about a half hour walk and through the biggest part of town, it could be quite dangerous.  She calls me as she gets close and me and my other coworker go out to meet her.  We get to the main road and as we’re walking past the convenience store, we realize the entire ground underneath the store has shifted and has risen about a half a foot.  I tried to snap a photo but a guy came over and asked us to stop.  We made our way back to the gymnasium and settled down for the night.  Every so often though, we were reminded of what was happening when all of the phones in the gymnasium went off.

地震です。地震です。

Sometimes a few people would let out a tiny scream or a shout, but after a while everyone started to grumble with each new alert.  The lights stayed on and we all tried to rest.  At one point I called my sister, who was teaching her science class.  She used my experience as an opportunity to teach her kids because they had just studied earthquakes.  I asked her to relay a message to my Mom that I was ok, and tried to sleep.  Early the next morning my coworker wanted to head back to her place to get some clothes so we walked to my house to use the bathroom before she headed off.  I didn’t want to be alone, and was still in a lot of pain, so I headed back to the gymnasium with my other coworker to be with my assistant manager’s family.   When I was finally able to look around and see what was going on, I could see a bunch of tents set up outside the gymnasium and the Japanese Self Defense Force getting water and food prepared.  They called for people to line up but I had zero energy, so one of my assistant manager’s friends brought me some bread and let me nibble on it.  A little after 9 a.m., approaching 8 hours from the big quake, we headed to my assistant manager’s house.  My coworker went back to his place, and eventually my other coworker came back from her place and stayed with us.  We slept on and off for the majority of the day.  I talked to a few people but terror had gripped me and every time I was awake all I could do was cry.  I finally took a glance at my arm, and this is what I found.

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And it hurt really bad.  I had a hard time lifting or carrying anything with this arm for a while afterwards.  The blood kept traveling to different parts of my arm, so I’m pretty sure I tore a muscle.  We were without water, but the electricity had come back on.  We headed off to one of my assistant manager’s friend’s houses because they had water since they lived a bit outside of the city.  We filled up and they gave me some medicine for my forehead and arm.  When we got back to her house I went back to sleep, trying to erase the memories from the night before.  I was angry at myself, because I had felt scared right before the earthquake, I had known something was off.  I didn’t listen to my own feelings and tried to ignore them as being silly and paranoid.  I feel if I had just listened to myself I would have stayed at my assistant manager’s house and not been alone when the earthquake happened and I probably wouldn’t have gotten injured.

I was also dreading the future.  I couldn’t be alone after the big quake.  I had to be around or near someone at all times.  I was thinking ahead to when we went back to work and when I’d have to stay in my apartment alone, and it was causing me to tear up every time.  I tried to block out the thoughts, but when I had nothing else to do but think about what happened and what the future would hold, I couldn’t help myself.  We had a barbecue at night, which helped to fill my stomach and give me something positive to think about, but immediately afterwards dread filled me again.  Around this time the staff from my head office had decided to pull the three foreign teachers out of Kumamoto and bring us to Fukuoka.  I spent the night waiting and hoping that nothing else terrible would happen to keep them from coming to get us.  Parts of the highway collapsed, the shinkansen wasn’t running, no buses were going into or out of Kumamoto.  The only way in or out at this point was to drive a car.

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Nothing severe happened thankfully, and after midnight our main boss had come to rescue us.  I was so thankful, but terrified at the same time that something would happen to us on the way to Fukuoka.  I didn’t feel truly safe until we arrived in Fukuoka, what I felt was far enough away from Kumamoto to not cause any trouble.  But I then spent 3 weeks adjusting, trying to come to terms with what happened and realize that I had survived a natural disaster.  Even now when I tell myself I survived, I shake my head at myself.  I think back to those moments, how utterly terrified I felt and the defeat that gripped me afterwards and I realize that it’s completely true.  I survived something that not many people will go through, and while I can continue to consider that a negative, it would be better to turn it into a positive.

This was what happened during the earthquakes, next week I’d like to address the aftermath.  The emotionally trauma, still dealing with concussion symptoms and the PTSD.  Also, coming back to work and living in a city that I thought I’d never want to live in again for the rest of my life.  It’s been a tough road, but I’m strong.  This earthquake knocked me to my knees and tested me in ways I never thought imaginable… I didn’t think I’d be able to get back up after this.  But I have, and I’ve learned so much about myself and what I’m capable of.  It’s true, what they say… You never truly know how strong you are until you’ve been at your weakest or lowest point.

Hopefully, I never reach that point again or hear those damn words again.

地震です。 地震です。

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2 thoughts on “The day my world started shaking

  1. Ginny Chilinski says:

    Great writing! You are strong! Hope you never have to experience something like that again. Check that one off the list.
    God does bless you!

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