Japan Earthquake: March 11, 2011

I was really looking forward to an easy Friday. I had been sick for six painfully long weeks, and finally I was starting to feel pretty good. Also, I had a long week of late meetings, and Fridays are generally easy days to catch up, leave early, and take a good swim to relax before the weekend. Plus, spring is coming, right? Cool.


Well, Friday March 11, 2011 started pretty good as I arrived on the 21st floor of the Setagaya Business Square in Yoga, which is right outside Tokyo. Up there I have a gorgeous view of Tokyo to the north (here, here), and I really enjoy looking out over the city every day and every night. I am lucky to have such an impressive view. And, actually, I can walk around the floor and see Tokyo 360 degrees. Impressive.

So, last Friday all was well — until the building started moving. But having the SBS tower move a bit is not really that unusual. This is Tokyo, after all. Things move. In fact, I generally toss out a few Tweets about it, just like everyone else. Twitter lights up with all of my friends around Tokyo posting what they feel when earthquakes come. For me the building usually moves a bit and then stops. Thirty seconds is normal. But this was different and I knew it right away. My first Tweet was at 2:49: “wow. very big quake in tokyo right now.” Then a moment later I quickly punched this out: “shit.” And that was it. I could no longer write because I could hardly see the screen and stay in my chair. The movement of the building rapidly escalated to a violent whipping back and forth. I could feel the building twisting. I could hear the steel stressing. I could hardly stand. I bet the damn thing was moving 10 feet in either direction.

Just when I thought things were bad they got worse. Honestly, I thought I was done. I thought I was dead. I grabbed my helmet (each office cube has a little disaster kit), and I kneeled on the floor pressing myself up against my desk (sitting in a char with wheels was utterly ridiculous at that point). In that position I tried to write an email to my wife. That did not work. Then I tried to call. But the cell phones were down. Then I tried the wireline. But that was down too. I could not talk to anyone. And the building seemed to be moving too much to attempt to hit the stairs, too. I did not want to be running down 21 flights in a confined stairwell with hundreds of other people in a moving building. I was afraid of getting trapped or trampled. So I decided to just wait it out a bit longer. I was in a modern building, after all, so it was not going to break in half, but I was worried about the ceiling coming down on my head for sure. Some computer monitors were falling over. Some walls were cracking. The server room was a mess.

After 20 minutes of this I was really getting sick. And I was thinking, where is my wife and kid? What are they feeling right now? A quake this big is clearly killing a great many people at that moment so where is my family? Are they ok? Are they trapped? When I die here in this office in a few minutes, will they be ok without me if they survive? All those thoughts ran through my head. Over and over again. But then the whipping began to reduce, and I cut a quick email to my team in the U.S. and U.K. to let them know where I was and that I was getting out. If I got trapped I wanted someone to know where I was. I was going to write to my wife but the screen went black. So, I just took off for the stairs with my work bag and disaster kit.

The walls in the stairwell were cracking and pieces of plaster were falling off. Through the windows I could see fires already starting outside. I got half the way down and another major quake hit so I began bouncing off the walls. I felt silly for not being able to walk straight. I found a couple of steel beams exposed slightly but otherwise it was perfectly passable and I got out ok. Then when I was outside at street level there were a few more big aftershocks. Some concrete barriers were broken and some sidewalks were ripped up in that area, but the real damage was obviously elsewhere. I was lucky. But I have never felt so powerless in my life. I have never felt a force so overwhelming. I have never felt so … small.

I walked around a bit outside the building to catch my breath and get my legs back. They were rubber. I knew I would have to walk home since there would be no trains for many hours. So, after talking to some people I just started walking, following the train tracks heading south, along with many thousands of other people. Most people were very quiet. Then it started raining slightly and got chilly. I got lost a few times but finally found a bus for the last few miles and got home around 8:30. We had no power but my little girl and my wife were safe and that is all that mattered. They had been nearby home when the quakes hit but were not in any buildings. After going to sleep that night I had many nightmares, and there were many aftershocks that were quite disconcerting so I kept on getting up. I was disappointed that I could not contact anyone. I had no internet, no wireline phone, no cell phone, no power.

The next morning I woke up and had services so I started contacting people. It was heartening to find out that so many people were concerned about me. I mean, my last public comment was “shit” on Twitter and then I went dark for 18 hours so I guess that is understandable. Many people from the OpenSolaris communitywere reaching out, and I heard from others in multiple international communities in Tokyo as well. These guys are a great source of information from all over Tokyo. And I got many wonderful pings of support from my team at work, from my friends and family in the United States, and from virtually every corner of the OpenSolaris world. It is inspiring and humbling to see such a reaction of support and love coming from so many people. I will never forget it. And I am very thankful. I am also especially proud of the community-building efforts we all did in recent years on the OpenSolaris project. Those relationships have clearly endured.

Hover your mouse over these images to see before and after shots of the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that Japan has been dealing with. Horrible. So many people have lost their lives. Probably even more have been injured and lost their homes. More images here. And here. If you want to help go here: Red Cross, 8 Ways to Help Japan, Japan Quake: How I can Help, Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. But we are not out of danger yet. There is still a chance of serious aftershocks, and the damage to some nuclear reactors has the entire world on edge.



10 thoughts on “Japan Earthquake: March 11, 2011

  1. Hi, Joni. Yep, I survived a pretty big one, eh? Very lucky. And the experience has changed me (and my family) a great deal. I hope the nuke plant calms down soon. I was in NY during the Three Mile Island mess, so I can not believe where I am now.


  2. I must admit following your tweet that I thought you might have been injured .. “He takes tons of pictures and might have tried to keep standing and shooting the event”

    A guy that tried to stand up in a 7+ simulator, few years ago, and heavily fell on ground. It hurts 🙂


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  4. Jim, I am glad to see you posting, and DELIGHTED to hear that you made it back home and that you and your family quickly reunited and were safe from the quake. Frankly, I can’t even imagine what you’re going through now but hope you are staying safe. Too many tragic events at once in one place, and I’m so sorry you’re experiencing them. Thank you, though, for posting how we can help, and if there’s anything more direct we can do let me know. I’m still sending my best thoughts your way! Joni


  5. That’s a terrific post in every sense of the word, Jim.

    Having moved to NZ last year, the Christchurch quakes already had us seriously spooked, the Japan quakes have certainly added to that. I experienced my 1st quake only a few weeks back, but it was totally minuscule in comparison with what you’ve been through.

    Thanks for writing about it – I’m glad you & the family are ok.


  6. Jim, thank you for posting, I’m so relieved you and your family are OK. My heart breaks for all of the people impacted by this tragedy.


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