Trip Interrupted

My work trip to Korea is complete, and I’m back in the States now. I’ll have a little more about Daegu by way of a wrap-up later, but I’m going to take a moment to talk about my return flight, which was a little more eventful than I expected.

My connecting flight between Korea and the U.S. was at Narita International Airport, Tokyo, Japan. On March 11. Scheduled to depart about 3 pm, which had us embarking about 2 pm. I was stowing my backpack in the overhead when I heard some loud thumping noises, and the plane began to shake. Thoughts running through my head:

I wonder what the baggage handlers are doing down there.

They can’t be pushing the plane away from the gate yet, everybody’s still settling into their seats.

This thing is bouncing around pretty hard. I wonder what’s going on?

Twenty-some-odd years in the Air Force had conditioned me to expect one of three things when inside a bouncy aircraft: turbulence (when flying),  ground crew messing around with the aircraft (when stationary on the ground), or we just hit a pothole on the taxiway (when moving on the ground). We weren’t flying, and we weren’t taxiing.

The pilot made an announcement over the intercom, in that incredibly calm, almost bored voice those guys must be trained to use in situations like this. “Folks, we’re experiencing an earthquake. Please stay in your seats and make sure the overhead bins are closed and locked.” It now felt like somebody had grabbed the airplane and was shaking in it back and forth like a bottle of Yoo Hoo, trying to dislodge the chocolate gunk at the bottom.

My reaction, as my brain was still visualizing rogue tow cart drivers: Seriously?

Yes, that was as much sophistication as I could manage. I actually said it out loud. To the credit of everyone in the airplane, nobody screamed, nobody cried, nobody ran down the aisle in hysterics demanding the crew open the doors and let us out. It was very quiet. Perhaps they were also thinking, Seriously? but had the good sense not to vocalize their confusion. Whatever. Everyone kept their cool.

The gears inside my head finally began to turn. I looked out the window across the seats to my right and saw our wings flapping up and down, as well as those on the airplanes across the ramp. Ah, right–earthquake. Yeah. Makes sense.

After what seemed like a very long time, given my previous experiences with earthquakes growing up in California, the shaking subsided. It was still very quiet, save for a low rumble of conversation, people speculating about what had happened and how bad it was. A lot of us just looked at each other, wide-eyed, lacking the appropriate words.

There was an aftershock, fairly strong, then another, and another. They were tapering off in intensity, but by this time, we were getting the idea that this was a serious event. The pilot’s voice droned over the intercom once again.”They’re telling me Japan has just experienced a magnitude 8.8 earthquake, just off the coast. Initial indications are the impact was pretty severe. We’ll let you know more as we find out, but the airfield is closed until further notice.”

8.8? When was the last time I’d heard about a quake bigger than 7-point-something? This was bad. Of course, I had no idea just how bad it really was.

We stayed on the airplane, at the gate, for another four hours after that. It was probably the best place we could have been in an earthquake. Planes are designed to absorb a lot of impact shock from landing and turbulence, and we were in an open area, outside, where nothing was going to fall on us. The crew did a fantastic job keeping us as comfortable as possible (good on ya, Delta Airlines). They started up the inflight movies, broke out the peanuts and soda, and then served part of the first meal. There wasn’t much information after that. I tried using the WiFi function on my cell phone, hoping to fire off an email to my family, and maybe learn more about what had happened, but I couldn’t get a connection.

We were told the airfield was being inspected for damage, and later that the terminal had been evacuated and was also being inspected. As the clock ticked on, the pilot told us our flight had been cancelled, they were still working out what do to with us, and he thanked us for our patience. About a half-hour later, word came that we weren’t cancelled after all, and we departed soon thereafter. Everybody cheered. Multiple times. It turned out that we were one of only five flights allowed to depart Norita after the earthquake.

The remainder of the trip was uneventful. The pilot got another huzzah as he landed us at Minneapolis, thumping the airplane authoritatively onto the tarmac–he was probably a former Navy pilot. They tend to hit the runway like they’re expecting to catch an arresting cable on a carrier deck. Delta had already worked new connecting flights for everybody and had the new boarding passes waiting for us after we cleared Customs (again, good on ya, Delta).

Then, we saw the news reports on the monitors in the main terminal, and the scope of the disaster became very, very clear. In retrospect, I’m kicking myself for not giving more thought to the people in Japan who bore the brunt of this thing while I got jounced around in my flexible, shock-resistant airplane, then noshed on peanuts and Coke, watched Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and fretted about not being able to contact my family and whether I’d get home to watch the final day of my daughter’s robotics team competition and see my son before he went back to college after spring break. I wasn’t totally oblivious. I did think about what had happened, and the potential damage, offered up a couple of brief, light prayers, but I’m still less than happy with my own self-centeredness. As I was sitting there, people were dying. Sure, I had no way to know how much damage the earthquake had caused, nor that a tsunami had followed in its wake, but I grew up in California. I know about earthquakes. The implications of an 8.8 on the Richter Scale magnitude quake should have been enough to move me to some serious prayer.

Well, I know now. I’m home, safe, and very thankful for that mercy, but if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some business to attend to.


6 thoughts on “Trip Interrupted

  1. Well, I for one am very happy that you were seated safely in that very durable plane during the whole disaster. You can’t imagine the thoughts that went through my head as I listened to the news report that morning, knowing you were scheduled to fly into and out of Japan about the time of the earthquake. I thank God for your safety and His divine plan to bring you back to us safely and for your extremely intelligent, insightful, and supportive son who never let me think the worst. He had extreme faith in you and the Lord throughout that very long day.

    1. The hardest part of this was not being able to get word to you, knowing it would be at least 12 hours before I would have telephone access, and all that time you would be seeing the news reports and worrying. Guess I’ll have to pony up for the international cell plan next time. Love ya, sweetheart.

  2. Wow, Fred. That is truly epic. You should see about getting this published in a print venue. Maybe Delta’s inflight magazine? Not many people in the US can say they were there when it happened, and of those who were, how many wrote such a moving account? Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Well, this certainly eclipses my former most-memorable air travel event, passing Jonathan Frakes as I was changing planes in Minneapolis about 15 years ago.

  3. Oooohh, Caprice, that’s a great idea!

    So glad you made it home safely, Fred.

    BTW, they don’t measure on the Richter Scale any more.

    The Richter scale has been superseded by the moment magnitude scale, which is calibrated to give generally similar values for medium-sized earthquakes (Wikipedia)

    I wrote about an earthquake on my blog not so long ago, and that’s how I stumbled on the new scale. I tend to think the new one records a little higher, but let’s face it, 8.8 is high on any scale.


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