US Airline Pilot's Letter From Japan Quake Zone

This account of Japan’s terrible earthquake by a captain of a major passenger airline was forwarded to me by a good friend. I’m keeping the pilot’s name confidential, for obvious reasons.

Date: Saturday, March 12, 2011, 9:31 PM

Hello all.  First of all, I’m OK.  (I know you’ve heard that one before….)  I was in Tokyo for “the big one”.  Here’s a bit of narrative and thoughts I have written down during the last day and a half.  It’s a bit long.  Most of it written starting a few hours after the quake, but is a continuing journal also.  (Some of you have already received some of this.
March 11, 2011, I am just finishing up my 24 hour layover in Tokyo, Japan.  The trip from Los Angeles was pretty much uneventful, as is the layover.  I am freshly showered, and just finishing dressing and packing my bags for the next leg of my trip to Singapore.  I am just starting to put my socks and shoes on, and will be ready for the hour taxi ride back to Narita Airport.  Just another exhausting all night flight to look forward to.
The taxi pickup time is 3:10 in the afternoon, which is 10:10 at night Los Angeles time.  At just a couple minutes prior to 3:00 o’clock, it hit.  Not very strong at first, but strong enough that I know exactly what it is.  An earthquake.  Now, Japan just had a pretty strong 7.2 quake a week or so ago, so it’s probably just an aftershock.  I’ve been through 4 or 5 strong quakes in Los Angeles during my life, so my initial reaction is to just keep getting ready to check out.  No big deal.
This quake seems different though.  I’m no expert, but this one is starting to worry me.  I’m on the 17th floor of a 37 story hotel, and things are starting to get interesting.  One, this quake is getting stronger.  And two, it’s not going away.  It’s lasting longer than any I have been in.  I’m starting to get a bit worried, because it’s going on and on, and getting stronger and stronger.  It goes on for seconds, on into minutes.

I figure I better start to take this one seriously and make plans to bug out of here.  Actually, not much planning at all, I decide to get the hell out and rush to get my shoes and socks on.  I stand up and find out I can’t stand.  The building is rocking so hard I fall back down on the bed.  I get up and start to run to the door, and figure I better take some provisions with me.  So I turn around and head back to grab my bags that have some food bars and water already packed in them.  If I’m going to be stuck out on the street I want to have as much provisions as I can carry.  Maybe a dumb idea, but maybe not.
As I try to gather up all my stuff, I notice how bad this earthquake really is.  The room is creaking and moaning, cupboards are rattling, drawers are sliding, and I am falling down.  This is really a bad one.  I look out the window and can’t believe my eyes.  Another building across the street, maybe about 150 feet away, and another one beyond that, probably another 100 or 150 feet are moving.  Really swaying.  I mean REALLY swaying.  I can see them moving 5 or 10 feet back and forth.  The perspective is something that only Hollywood could produce.  Massive buildings rocking back and forth.
Up to this point I wasn’t really scared, that is till I see those buildings moving.  That sight brings a new reality to the situation.  Now, I actually think that this might be my last moments on earth.  I am in a tall building that is rocking and rolling, and as far as I’m concerned, is acting like it will fall down any second.  The quake has been going on not for just seconds, but for minutes, and seems like hours.  Now my mind is racing.  I am starting to second guess every thought I have.  Do I stay?  Do I go?  Do I leave everything?  Do I take everything?  What do I do?  Where do I go?
My heart is racing, my adrenalin is pumping, and my legs seem to be getting weaker.  This quake rocks on for about four minutes.  FOUR MINUTES!  That’s an eternity.
I make my decision and go for it.  I grab my two bags and head out.  My room is right next to a fire escape, and that’s where I head.  I break the plastic lock cover off the door and try to open it.  The lock won’t turn.  I try harder.  It finally turns and I get it unlocked.  I try to open the door and it won’t open.  The doorknob turns, but the door is wedged shut.  I take a step back and put my shoulder into it.  It finally pops open with a thud.  I’m out on the balcony and head for the stairway door, but it’s hard to open as well.  I finally get it open, and grab my bags to head down.
The second I start down, a hotel employee yells at me to come back.  He tells me to go with him.  So, I turn around and head back down the hallway, past my room, and into the employee section and stairwell.  I start down.  Carrying my bags is hard enough, but down stairs is harder, and down 17 flights is really hard.  The employee is staying with me though, and offering to carry my bags.  But I persevere and continue down, down, down till I finally come out in the lobby level.  I’m sweating, winded, and still a bit scared.
Well, I feel safer now, being out of that building.  Well not all the way out, but in the lobby at least.  I meet with my co-pilot and some other crews.  There are a lot of people all milling around now.  We are supposed to go to the airport, but nobody really knows for sure.  Our taxi is here and ready, but I get hold of a phone and call [my airline] to see if they have a plan.  Of course not.  Well, it has only been 10 or 15 minutes since the quake and….  Oh shit, As I’m talking to the duty manager, an aftershock hits.  A big one.  I run out to the front of the hotel to get in the clear.
But in the middle of a big city downtown, there is no clear.  I can certainly see sky, but on the other hand I can see more buildings than sky.  If one of those suckers decides to fall down, there is really no place to go.
It’s not long, and we find out that the hi-way is closed, the airport is evacuated, and then closed.  We really have no place to go, so, we stay.  We still have water and electricity, so we are not as bad off as those poor people up to the north.
The rest of my day involves sitting in the hotel, on my computer trying to find out information, and riding out aftershocks.  I eventually get another room on the 14th floor, which doesn’t make me very happy, and again ride out aftershocks all night long.  Many, many aftershocks.  I don’t sleep all night.  My legs are still weak.  My hands are still shaking.
Airports closed.  Trains and subways stopped.  Oil refineries on fire.  Eleven nuclear plants shut down.  Hi-ways closed.
Now I hear a nuclear plant not far away is losing its cooling water, and a radiation leak is expected.  The area is being evacuated.
I turn the TV off, turn the lights off and try to get some sleep, but it’s futile.  The aftershocks are virtually continuous.  They are not real strong, but go on and on and on.  I timed a couple of them.  One lasted 12 minutes, and another 9 minutes.  There are a few moments of inactivity, but for the most part, it’s still rock and roll.
One reason for no sleep is the constant creaking in the floors, walls and ceiling.  It’s amazing, even the slightest movement starts a constant crescendo of creaking.   There is just no chance of sleeping, or even relaxing.  My adrenalin I think has been pumping for 14 hours now.  I’m weak, and shakey.  I really gave my legs a workout coming down all those stairs too.  They are pretty sore.
The news on the TV is just devastating.  The quake was pretty bad, but the real damage seems to be coming from the tsunami.  On top of that, there are a lot of fires breaking out too.  This is one of those natural disasters of epic proportion.  And here I am, smack dab in the middle of it.  Crap.
I phone [my airline] in hopes that they have a plan for us.  Well, they do, and it’s not what I expect.  They have us rescheduled to continue on our original schedule, just a day later.  What?  They are not getting us home?  I can’t believe it.  Well, maybe I can.
But from my perspective, It’s nuts to send us on.  I have had about 10 hours sleep in the last 48 hours, with virtually no chance of getting any more.  The building is just too noisy and moves too much to get any sleep.  I talked to X, and he’s pretty much the same.  So I’ll have about a day’s worth of sleep in 3 days.  That’s just nuts.  What the hell are they thinking?
But stiff upper lip and all that.  Damn the torpedoes, and carry on.  What a mess.
We eventually make it down to Singapore, a day late.  I pass out once I hit the bed, but only sleep 5 hours.  That makes about 20 hours of sleep in the last 85 or so.  X and I are both exhausted.  At least the hotel room isn’t swaying, although while lying in bed it seems like it is.  Funny what your mind does to you.
It’s been 48 hours since the quake now, and I just pulled up my schedule.  It shows us heading back to Narita (Tokyo) tomorrow morning.  I haven’t talked to anyone at [my airline], but from what I see on the news, I’m thinking that that is not such a great idea.  Food shortages and power outages in Tokyo, not to mention at least two, and now maybe three nuclear plants in jeopardy of major damage and meltdowns.  I’ve had enough radiation exposure over the last year with all the CT scans I’ve had, I don’t want to fly through a radiation cloud and come home glowing green or growing a third eyeball in my forehead.  I’ll talk to the co-pilot and we will make a decision before the morning flight.  It will be a tough one.
My immediate plans for the rest of the day is to get a good meal, and a good nights sleep.  I hope.
That’s about it from the war front.  I guess I should ask that you don’t reply, at least for a while.  I’m behind enough on my emails just being away from home for a week, not even counting all this mess.  Hopefully I’ll make it home soon.  Thanks for all your prayers, thoughts and support.

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Thank you so much for posting this report by the airline pilot. It really brought it home to me. The Nisqually EQ in Seattle only lasted 15 seconds and did so much damage that the entire state was declared a disaster area. I can’t begin to comprehend what it must be like to have quakes continue for 15 minutes and all the aftershocks running for minutes too. Aside from the physical damage to people and property, the psychological damage has to be devasting! When you add nuclear radiation, we just can’t get our minds around it!


Thanks for the very personal perspective, especially since it lacks the broad-range speculation the media indulges in. God bless them.


This is a hoax – United Airlines don’t operate Tokyo to Singapore.
He would not have water packed in his bag – it would be confiscated by security and being a pilot (which he is not) he would be aware of that.