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Opinions of Sunday, 13 March 2011

Columnist: Ofosu-Appiah, Ben

My Magnitude 9.0 Earthquake Survival Story; A Ghanaian In Tokyo

What a day it was last Friday, March 11th !!! I as well as many in Japan will never ever forget this day.!!! I have lived through a lot of earthquakes in my close to 20 years studying, living and working in Japan but NEVER before had I experienced anything close to what happened on Friday, March 11th. This day will forever be etched on my memory. It is the day I went to hell and came back !!!

It was 2;46pm. I work in the Otemachi business area of Tokyo. If you know Tokyo well, Otemachi is the business heart of the city, all the giant Japanese multi-nationals have their offices here, and right nextdoor is Kasumigaseki, the bureaucratic nerve center of Japan, where all government ministries are, and again next to Nagatacho, the political center of Japan, where the Parliament House and Prime Minister's office and residence are, and most importantly the Imperial Palace , the Emperor's residence is just nearby.

I am the HR guy of my company so I was scheduled to give an interview to a Canadian applicant at 2;45pm. At 2;45pm he had not shown up so I checked my mail only to realize he was lost, couldn't find our office (even though he had a map, never mind this happens often in Tokyo) and had sent an SOS to be contacted on his blackberry. AS I got off my desk to pick the phone to call this guy this monster of an earthquake struck.

I must mention that my office is on the 9th Floor of a highrise building with lots of glass windows and doors. Earlier on in the week on Wednesday, March 9th a magnitude 6.0 earthquake struck and on Friday morning in the office, an indian, a British, an Australian, and an American colleagues of mine were talking about it together with the Japanese staff in the office. We have a very international workforce. I remember saying I was the first to feel that quake Wednesday morning several seconds before the rest of them did so if the big one hits that several seconds will make a lot of difference as to who will be able to escape and who will get trapped. Tokyo is reportedly overdue for a big one. In other words, Tokyo has been expecting a massive earthquake for years. The last big one to hit the city was on September 23rd, 1923.

But what was to happen later in the afternoon took everyone by surprise. The building shook violently and swayed from left to right for what looked like eternity. I later found out the shaking took about 3 minutes but to me at that point it seemed like eternity. THAT EARTHQUAKE WAS MASSIVE !!! I started saying to myself "what if this building caved in there would be no chance of survival". Thank God it didn't cave in. The monster earthquake sent things flying all over the office, computers falling, desks shaking violently and moving, people rolling on the ground, the ground moving, files and cabinets tumbling and cracks appearing in the walls of the building. Everyone was scared to death, some of the ladies in the office were crying and screaming. Even minutes after the shaking stopped people were still terrified and trembling. Now you will think the Japanese are used to earthquakes, yes they are to some extent. Earthquakes the magnitude of 5.0 - 6.0 happen almost on a daily basis and sometimes the Japanese don't even stop to acknowledge it. But this was a mega huge 9.0 !!! Nobody has ever experienced that before !!!! You can imagine " the terrification" (to borrow a term from Gearge W Bush) on peoples faces. It was scary, terribly scary.

I tried to call my brother, my nephew, friends and people I know but all lines were down. I could only send text messages so I sent 100's of texts like this: "How are you? Are you OK? I hope you are safe and sound. Respond quickly to let me know you are alright"

I was stranded in Tokyo allnight. I went to an evacuation center in the Otemachi area, Chiyoda ku as all train lines stopped. I spent the night in an elementary school gymnasium that served as an evacuation center. Close to about 300 people were there. It was a huge gym strengthened and multipurpose designated as an evacuation center in case of an earthquake. We were given blankets, water, and biscuits and a TV screen to monitor the news. Our common humanity comes to the fore in times of disasters like this. I saw complete strangers hugging and embracing each other and comforting each other. We are in this together !!! The tsunami, fire outbreaks, and nuclear meltdown happened in Miyage, (Sendai, by now you know this city), Fukushima, and Iwate prefectures closest to the epicentre of the quake.

I am still trying to contact friends I know in Sendai especially but also in Fukushima to no avail. The death toll is belived will surpass 10,000. As you might have seen on TV, the destruction caused by the tidal waves was enormous. The relief efforts have been heroic but the enormity of the disaster has overshadowed all efforts. the nuclear meltdown is now considered one of the worst in history. TOKYO is about 300km away from these nuclear reactors. For know it is safe here but we continue to experience massive aftershocks one after the other. The fact that buildings are still standing in Tokyo after a massive 9.0 earthquake is a testimony to the higher building standards here. When I spoke with my family in Ghana, my wife and kids were happy to learn that i am safe and thank God for my life. My daughter on a lighter note said "Daddy, I told you to come home in January, now you see" Yes, she did tell me to come home in January. She is only six !! Mimi, I love you. I love you Nana and Vivian. Thank God I survived a magnitude 9.0 earthquake.

When I got home I continued to send mails like the one below to friends : " I am OK, perfectly OK.....no injury, except that I am still scared anytime there is an aftershock. Never before have I experienced anything like this. I was in a tall building in Otemachi business district of Tokyo when the quake hit. Anyway I am just home and want you to know that I am OK. I will be happy to know that you are OK too."

Thank God !! We survived the biggest earthquake ever to hit Japan and I heard the fifth biggest earthquake in the world since they started taking records. A massive 9.0 magnitude !!!!

For those who lost their lifes, our heart goes to them and their families. This is a huge catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. MAY THE SOULS LOST REST IN PEACE.

Ben Ofosu - Appiah, Tokyo, JAPAN.

The author is a longterm resident of Japan. A social, political, and economic analyst based in Tokyo. He is also a HR expert and policy strategist. He welcomes your comments.

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