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MU alumni experience Japan's devastating quake firsthand

Friday, March 11, 2011 | 7:32 p.m. CST; updated 7:04 p.m. CST, Saturday, March 12, 2011
Rescue workers help evacuate passengers from a train on a Japan Railways line following Friday's massive earthquake.

Former MU student Jim Buell kept his Facebook status short and scary.

“Late to work. Reason: earthquake.”

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Buell was on a Tokyo-bound train headed to his weekend English teaching job when his train suddenly stopped and began shaking violently.

“I knew that something devastating was happening,” Buell said. “But at the same time, I knew there was nothing I could do about it.”

Buell moved to a window to see the chaos unfold. For the next four minutes, buildings and structures swayed. Electricity lines toppled. He was experiencing the largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program, a magnitude 8.9 offshore earthquake hit at 11:46 p.m. CST on Thursday near the coast of Honshu, Japan, 231 miles from Tokyo. The quake resulted in a tsunami that ravaged Japan’s east coast with a 23-foot wave, leaving hundreds dead or missing.

Despite the disaster surrounding them, the 20 people sharing the train car with Buell remained calm.

“It’s a polite rule to be quiet during train rides in Japan,” said Buell, who graduated with his bachelor's degree in journalism from MU in 2009. “But these people were perfectly silent during the quake — nobody said anything. It was like they’d seen this before.”

Former MU student Satoshi Toyoshima is the senior graphic artist at Sankei Shimbun, a daily newspaper in Tokyo. The Japan Meteorological Agency’s “Earthquake Early Warning System” gave his newsroom a five-minute warning prior to the earthquake. In a 31-story building protected with a seismic isolation system, Toyoshima and his co-workers braced themselves but didn’t expect the tremors to affect them.

“The reality was that the entire floor ended up shaking like a thrill ride at an amusement park,” Toyoshima said. “I’ve been through many earthquakes in my life, but I thought this one was the most terrifying.”

Underscoring Buell's observations on the train, Toyoshima said Japanese citizens possess a calm mindset when it comes to earthquakes. Emphasis on the earthquake-safety drill and the seismic isolation systems in all high-rise buildings help ease citizens’ fears.

“Japanese people essentially live with earthquakes because they hit Japan all the time,” said Toyoshima, who got his master's degree in journalism from MU in 1996. “Tokyo people just assume the ‘big one’ won’t hit in the middle of Tokyo.”

This "big one" only rattled Tokyo, hampering subways and commuter trains. The deadliest part of the earthquake came from the resulting tsunami that caused widespread damage and hundreds of fatalities. With aftershocks still rattling the country, Toyoshima stayed up during the night to watch television reports of the tsunami’s destruction and to communicate online.

“I felt like I was watching a Hollywood disaster movie with fancy special effects,” Toyoshima said. “It washed out everything, and I’ve never seen that in Japan.”

Buell remained in a landlocked location, avoiding any threat of the tsunami. He returned to his home late that night and discovered everything still intact. He’ll have the whole weekend off, as his job’s been canceled for the next two days.

“It was quite an experience,” Buell said. “Definitely more interesting than work.”


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