The Day The Quake Struck

Nearly 3 weeks after the quake, for the first time, Yasue describes the moment it hit and the harrowing hours that followed.

To this day, Yasue’s mother does not know she was interviewed by CNN.

I woke up on the morning of March 11 and started what had become my normal routine. For the past 6 or 7 weeks, I had been caring for my mother who was hospitalized in Sendai. Most days began with me doing a few things around the house before beginning the 60 to 90-minute drive to the hospital.

I went shopping at Izumi Chuo Station and decided to go back home because I had bought some fresh fish. I was looking forward to cooking it that evening and did not want it to spoil.

After placing the fish in the refrigerator, I left the house around 1:45 p.m. and headed to the hospital. At 2:46 p.m., just as I turned into the hospital’s parking lot, the huge earthquake struck suddenly with tremendous intensity. My car was literally bouncing up and down and people everywhere were screaming. Few could stand up so many people fell to the pavement and sat in the street. Many people were running out of the hospital. Instinctively, I turned the engine off and turned the radio on. I quickly looked above me to see if I was in danger of falling debris and decided to stay in the car. It shook for what seemed like forever. (Editor’s note: The quake lasted for nearly 6 minutes and hit its peak 9.0 magnitude at the 45-second mark.)

I immediately thought of my mother as she was in the building so many people were fleeing. I assured myself she would be safe because the hospital building is new and she had nurses who would take care of her. After the quake subsided, I parked my car outside of the parking structure, so if it collapsed, I could still get to my car. Still numb with shock and worry, I hurried to the first floor of the hospital and was ordered by the staff to stay by the elevators. The elevator shafts are structurally one of the strongest points in the building. Of course, the elevators were not working and there was a strong security door that automatically closed in front of the regular elevator doors. I had to stay there for about 45 minutes. I frantically tried calling my mom’s room but the call would not go through. I knew she must be worried about me.

I emailed Scott, but I was not sure he could receive it. Huge earthquake. I’m OK. Eventually, I decided to walk up to the 14th floor. On the 14th floor, a large number of patients were gathered in wheelchairs by the nurse’s station with the nurses trying to calm them. The patients who were able to walk on their own were gathered in the different room. They were so happy to see me because my mom had told them I was on my way, driving to the hospital. Looking down at the city from the 14th floor, I noticed that all the traffic lights were out and that the cars could not go anywhere because it was complete gridlock. They were stuck with no escape and I realized for the first time just how lucky I was. I was with my mom in a secure place. I was not on the road stuck. Had I been stuck in traffic, I would have had to make a choice – stay in the car or get out and walk.

It was so cold and it started snowing again that night. The hospital had its own generator and they still had running water. It was surreal looking out the window and down at what should have been a bustling downtown Sendai. The city was totally dark. The only light we could see was a feint orange glow from huge fires raging far from town. We continually heard sirens from emergency vehicles all night and suffered through many big aftershocks.

I found a sofa nearby my mom’s room and tried to get some sleep. I was so thankful to have a warm place to stay where I could lie down. One of the nurses brought me a blanket, the first of many times that someone I didn’t even know would help me. Sleeping was impossible though.

The hospital has a TV on every floor and I was able to watch the news for a short time. I saw people standing on rooftops waiting to be rescued. I saw the tsunami and the swath of destruction it caused. I could not watch much news because I had to regularly check in on my mom too. If I tried to close my eyes for a few minutes, it wouldn’t last long as we had so many aftershocks. Later, I learned that we had more than 400 aftershocks that night alone. They have continued since and we even had a few today.

In the days that followed 3/11, one of my mom’s roommates kept screaming at night in her dreams. Fueled by shock and lack of sleep, I too began imagining that this whole thing was a dream. My confusion would continue for days. I would wake wondering if the earthquake was even real only to realize all too soon that it was.

I have decided not to tell my mom about the full extent of this disaster. I do not think she could handle it. To this day, she still does not know that I was interviewed by the media. However, she does know that she was very lucky to have been in the safest place in Sendai when the quake struck. So do I.

HONOLULU Magazine’s owner, aio, is organizing a fundraiser for Tohoku University Hospital. Click here for details.