• Tue
  • Oct 21, 2014
  • Updated: 8:04am

Fear, sleepless night on news trail

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am
 

The first indication that something was wrong, as I took the express train from Yokohama to Utsunomiya on Friday afternoon, was when the driver of the train slammed on the emergency brakes, an automated voice gave a warning and the lights flickered out.

Having come to a stop outside Ome, the train was rocking and warnings over the intercom were becoming more strident. Outside, houses and multi-storey apartment blocks alongside the track swayed alarmingly. Trees, lamp posts and utility poles were waving, their lines snaking together and untangling again. The bridge under which we had come to a halt was shaking alarmingly.

As people came out of their homes, a teacher ushered a group of young children out of their school and down the road, each of her charges holding his or her school bags above their head as protection from falling debris.

Just as the quake was subsiding, an aftershock struck and the shaking began again. And so it was, intermittently, for the next 90 minutes, as passengers managed to watch the mayhem unfold on mobile phone televisions.

When the scale of the disaster became clear -and that no trains would be running in eastern Japan for the foreseeable future- the crew announced that we would be evacuating. One by one, we clambered down from the train onto the tracks.

Incongruously, the Japan Railways conductor saluted me as I reached the bottom of the step ladder and wished me a good day.

In a straggling line, the passengers made their way to the nearest main road, where some caught buses that were already overloaded, the lucky caught taxis and the rest began walking home.

I was one of the lucky ones and shared a cab with an elderly couple who had been going to visit relatives. The driver was similarly friendly and put his mobile phone TV on the dashboard so we could watch the crisis unfolding. It was fortunate that we all got along well as we were to be together for the next eight hours, the time it took to travel 25 kilometres back to my home in Yokohama, about 30km south of Tokyo.

All the while there were aftershocks; once home, the tremors continued all night as I contacted friends and family to reassure them that I was safe and I got to work writing and doing radio interviews.

I also phoned a couple of journalist and photographer colleagues and we formed plans for the morning.

After a sleepless night -when I was not working I was picking up a shattered collection of CDs, righting pictures on walls and sweeping up the debris of smashed chinaware and glass -I left home at 6am to rendezvous with my colleagues and the hire car.

On the map, the distance from Yokohama to Sendai, the epicentre of the disaster, is a little over 400km and should take less than four hours to travel.

At the time of writing, we have taken 7 hours to travel about 120km. It seems unlikely that we will reach Sendai before nightfall and will probably be sleeping in the car.

The roads are choked with all sorts of vehicles; the motorways are off limits to all but emergency services. The police are out in force. And all the while, the ground is rocking beneath our feet.

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