Tokyo — Reporters are not supposed to be part of the stories they cover, but for a few days in 2011, an unfolding national catastrophe suddenly got personal. On March 11 of that year, my son ended up with a front seat to the biggest earthquake in Japanese recorded history — one of the largest on record anywhere, in fact.
At the time, Kohei was a junior at Sendai Ikuei Gakuen High School, just 81 miles from the quake epicenter off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture.
As scenes of epic devastation started to roll in from across northeastern Japan, I futilely dialed one of the few places with functioning phones, the Sendai police department. An overwhelmed officer did his best to sound encouraging: “All I can say is we haven’t received any fatality reports regarding your son.”
Unbeknownst to us, earlier that afternoon Kohei and his classmates had gathered in the school gym for an assembly.
“It was fifth or sixth period,” Kohei said, speaking from his current home in College Station, Texas. “I heard a pre-recorded announcement, that an earthquake was approaching our location. So, at first, I thought it was a drill.”
Every child in Japan is trained for earthquake response — but not for what happened next.
“I heard this countdown, it was like ’10, 9, 8…’ and then I realized an actual earthquake was approaching our location,” Kohei said. “By the time it hit ‘3, 2…’ I could literally hear the earthquake approaching, and then it was like, boom! At zero, it was like someone had set explosives under the building or something.”
Horizontal tremors rocked the hall for several minutes, followed by a series of vertical jolts.
“You could barely stand because literally the floor, it was like a huge trampoline. You could visually see the wave” undulating the gym floor, he said. “As a 17-year-old kid, you don’t really think about dying from an earthquake, but it was a terrifying experience.”
Many students ducked under gym mats as clouds of what appeared to be asbestos insulation and broken ceiling tiles rained down. After six minutes the shaking subsided and the students were able to leave. The entire student body briefly gathered on the soccer pitch before returning to their homes in the prefecture.
With the transport grid paralyzed, out-of-towners like my son had no choice but to shelter at their dorm near the port of Sendai, in an area called Nakano-Sakae. It was only about five miles east of their campus, and just a few minutes’ trip by train, but with the tracks washed out by the tsunami and roads closed, the only way to get around was on foot. A teacher led about 20 students on a nearly three-hour trek as snow fell.
As the group traversed a bridge, a wall of black water surged toward them, nearly reaching their feet as they scurried to the other side.
By the time they reached the dorm, the tsunami floodwaters had receded, leaving behind a roll of soda bottle labels from a local bottler and beached fish, still flopping, in the muddy yard.
Stunned, shivering and hungry, with aftershocks continuing to rip through the city, the boys piled their futons into a single room in a futile effort to stay warm. Sleep would remain elusive for the next four days, which were mostly spent searching for food.
While Japanese citizens were praised, rightfully, for their dignity and remarkable lack of civil disorder during the crisis, looting was rife. On the street near his dorm, Kohei saw a boy about his age rifling through a wrecked videogame store. He was shocked to see car thieves operating with impunity, in broad daylight.
Yet amid the misery and raw fear, there were brief moments of joy — The night sky, suddenly bursting with stars in the pitch-black of a city left without lights; Standing in a long line, only to be handed the thinnest rice balls he’d ever seen. Nothing ever tasted so good.
One day Kohei was able to bike downtown, where the city had set up emergency cellphone services, and text us to say he was alive. And on Tuesday, four days after the disaster struck, one of our news crews in the area gave him a lift back to Tokyo.
Now 27, and a graduate student in athletic training at Texas A&M University, Kohei lives a world away from Sendai and the abject terror of that day. But the 2011 disaster has left him humbled, with a sense of purpose.
“Twenty-two-thousand lives were lost,” he said. “As a survivor, I feel obligated to live my life to the fullest, for those who couldn’t.”