I work on the 26th floor of a 54 storey, modern tower in the centre of Tokyo. I was at my desk when we felt the first jolt and we all glanced around slightly nervously, but nobody was too worried as minor tremors aren’t uncommon in Japan. We had quite a wobble on Wednesday, and initially yesterday’s earthquake felt much the same.
The buildings are designed to absorb the energy from quakes, and they become quite springy in order to dissipate the energy from the impact. In practice this feels like the building is a large ship on a choppy sea, and it bobs around quite gently, but it’s still pretty unnerving and can make people feel a little queasy. Yesterday the building moved a bit more that we’d felt before, and people began to stand up from their desks and look out of the windows and at the light fixtures which had started swinging. One of my colleagues asked me if I could feel it too, and just as I confirmed that I could definitely feel the building shifting, we felt a huge jolt and the walls began to flex and as well as being pushed from side-to-side, there was a strong feeling of lifting up and down as well. At this point there were a few gasps around the office and the nervous smiles were replaced with expressions or real shock. The movement in the floors continued to grow in strength and people started holding on to desks and walls in order to steady themselves. At this point I was walking towards the windows as people were remarking that they could see that the tall buildings opposite were swaying noticeably. Even worse, on the outside of one of these towers were a window cleaning crew in a cradle suspended by cables, and they were swinging quite dramatically. It later emerged that they were both unharmed, and that one of the building residents opened a window for them and they were able to steady themselves by clinging to the window frame. As I made my way over I noticed that the huge, floor to ceiling windows in our office were flexing in and out and looked like they could explode at any moment. As the waves of movement became increasingly violent, it was getting harder to walk in a straight line. Earthquake alarms began to go off all over the building, announcing in English and Japanese that we should crawl underneath our desks, which some people began to do.
At this point I decided to move towards the core of the building, and as I did I saw people heading into the emergency stairwells. I followed suit, reasoning that getting out of the building was probably a sensible thing to do. At this point a certain amount of adrenaline kicked in, and I had to make a conscious effort to remain calm. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like being inside such a huge building that is being bounced around so violently, and I was suddenly aware that there was nowhere to go to escape the effects. At this point only about a minute had passed since the first big jolt, and the sway of the building was increasing to such a degree that I had to grab the handrail in the stair way to stop myself from being knocked off my feet. As I made my way down 26 storeys of windowless, grey concrete stairs, I was aware of a huge rumbling noise resonating through the building structure and could hear the sound of crumbling plaster falling inside the walls. It took several more minutes to get down the stairs and out of the building and it was disconcerting to emerge onto ground level and feel that everything was still moving around.
Outside the office were several hundred people, many being marshalled into assembly points. Lots of people were wearing safety helmets, which is part of the standard emergency earthquake kit given to Japanese workers. The main quake lasted about 5 minutes (which is a very long time for an earthquake), and by now, about 15 minutes had passed, and the worst of the quake was over, but very soon afterwards we felt the first of many, very strong aftershocks. Although less severe than the main quake, these alone were enough to make people unsteady on their feet, and at ground level I could see lamp posts and trees swaying around quite dramatically.
I remained outside for about 45 minutes, until I could be sure the worst was over and then walked 26 storeys back up to the office. The lifts shut down in the event of an earthquake and have to be inspected for damage before they can be reopened. From my office I could see lots of black smoke coming from fires around the city, and although I missed it, a huge fireball caused everybody to gasp as a petroleum depot at the docks exploded. I went back to work for a couple of hours, but the continued aftershocks and constant movement of the building was making me feel a little sick, and so a few of us made for the safety of a nearby pub.
Over the course of the evening we discovered that many places were shut due to staff being unable to get to work, as all of the trains and subways were closed down, and major roads had been shut in order to give access to emergency vehicles. Getting food was difficult too, as most places had their gas cut off as a safety precaution. When I eventually got home, I discovered that lots of cupboard doors were open, things had fallen off shelves and my kitchen sink was full of broken glass where my wine glasses had fallen. Thankfully my bottle of 12 year old Macallan single malt had only made it to the edge of the shelf and that particular disaster was averted.
Over the past 24 hours TV pictures have shown devastation caused by the tsunami in the North of Japan and my experiences seem utterly trivial. At time of writing, I’m still feeling aftershocks making my apartment bounce around but thankfully nothing worse. I’ve managed to get my gas reconnected and have hot water, food in the cupboards and an emergency kit within reach. I’m nervously watching the events unfold at the exploded nuclear power station, but the regard for safety in Japan is such that I’m fairly confident that the best people in the world are working on making it safe, but that if there is more trouble to come the authorities here will deal with it well.
A final note, which I think speaks volumes about Japan, despite suffering the worst recorded earthquake that the country has ever known, I still received letters both yesterday and today, along with the usual pizza flyers. Amazing country!