Saturday, March 12, 2011

Stuck in Narita - An Airline Pilot's Story from the Quake

Its like a scene from those old movies where monsters invade Tokyo, only these photos are real. Tokyo residents watch with horror as a construction crane sways "like a big metronome" over the Tokyo station.

Photos by Jim Karsh
This photo and the others in this post were were taken by my friend, Jim Karsh, a 747 pilot who frequently flies to Japan and had the misfortune to be playing tourist in the city of Tokyo when the earthquake hit on Friday. I say misfortune, but of course that is relative. With the death toll rising, Jim's scary afternoon and uncomfortable evening sleeping on the floor of the train station with hundreds of others is barely a blip on the scale of tragedy, as he would be the first to acknowledge.

But his account of what it was like in downtown Tokyo when the quake rattled everything is worth sharing and I have to add that it takes a special kind of resourcefulness to work through a disaster with grace and calm when one does not understand the language or even know the extent of the destruction.

It was 2:50 in the afternoon and Jim, on a 96-hour layover at Narita International Airport was waiting for the bus to take him from Tokyo station back to the hotel where airline crews are housed about 40 miles away.

"I have experienced maybe 5 or 6 much smaller quakes here over the years and they all start the same way, which is that you hear or feel a rumble that is like a big truck or a train, and then suddenly you realize that the ground or floor is moving and it's really an earthquake.That's how this was," Jim writes. Then the ground started shaking hard and with a collective "oooh" people started running out of the train station, and out from under the bus boarding area, as awning supports and the florescent lights began to swing, bang and creak. What could they do but watch, pray and wait?

The travelers moved inside to outside and then back in, as the tremors continued but with less intensity. Several hours later, an English speaking gentleman told Jim that the roads to the airport were closed, Neither the buses nor the trains were operating. For a while, he tried to find a hotel room. But that was hopeless.

"It was cold and dark out by now, and I had no knowledge of the area or the language, no guidebook, no Internet access, no cell phone, no
nothing. I figured I was screwed and it would be dumb to just wander the street looking for hotels which were going to be full anyway, so I went back to the train station and spent the night there along with thousands of others. There were stranded people everywhere."

Saturday morning, Jim still had little information about what happened. He heard the highway was closed, the "train not safe". But by afternoon he'd found a cab and another traveler with whom to share it and got far enough out of Tokyo to find a train line with service.

"You ever seen the pictures or movies of Japanese commuter trains where the conductors are packing people in? That's exactly how this was. The train was so full there were literally guys with their faces and hands and chests plastered against the door glass when the train rolled in. When the door opens people start fighting their way off and shortly thereafter people start fighting their way on. It is a total free for all."

Six and a half hours later, after hitching a ride from the Narita train station to his hotel with woman he recognized as an employee of the hotel restaurant, part one of his adventure ended. Jim describes the woman as "one of the happiest and friendliest people I have ever met." Certainly she's got to be among the most dedicated, after all she had a great excuse not to go to work. And for Jim, back in his warm room the information vacuum has been filled. In his email to me, he wrote,
My photo of Narita boarding gate taken last year

"It wasn't until I got back to the hotel and my laptop and started seeing news reports that I knew how serious this was."

There are a few good videos on You Tube  showing what the earthquake was like at Narita Airport though there was no damage to the runways.

"Narita airport's runway is not damaged," United Continental Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek said from Houston. "The problem is the railway lines aren't functioning so our employees and the passengers can't get to the airport." United Continental, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, China Southern, Delta Air Lines and other airlines canceled some flights out of Tokyo, home to Narita and Haneda two of the busiest airports in the world.

Which means that Jim's experience sleeping on the floor of the train station is being repeated at the cities' airports where travelers are undoubtedly eager to get out, but well advised to be patient.








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