Menlo Park resident tells of his experience in Japan when the earthquake struck last week


Chuck House, who lives in the Stanford Hills area of Menlo Park, sent The Almanac this account on Wednesday, March 16, of his teaching a seminar in Hachioji, Japan, last Friday when the earthquake struck. It begins with an incident after his return home.

By Chuck House

Late for work this morning, rushing out the door, I yelled, "See you for dinner!" Halfway to the car, my wife called out: "Bye, I love you." I walked back and hugged and kissed her – a deep lingering kiss.

What was I thinking, running out so blithely? I had only been home eighteen hours, after a horrific time in Japan – the kisses and hugs far outweighed the importance of any meeting. You never know when it will be the last kiss.

Life can end in an instant – we all know that, but it is a lesson so easily forgotten. One moment, the picture of life, excited, involved, zestful, with no more thought of mortality than a child might have. Knocked down by a wave, it takes no time at all to drown.

Teaching a seminar about large-company innovation last Friday in Hachioji, Japan, twenty-five miles west of Tokyo, I had just said, "You want to invent earth-shaking products." Thirty seconds later, I was awkwardly crouched under a folding table in an auditorium, on the first floor of a five story building, facing my wide-eyed Japanese host.

I've probably been in two dozen quakes over the years – some of them even thrilling, but none that caused me real fear. This one was different. I honestly thought: "This could be it."

It was the worst shaking I have ever experienced. We evacuated, standing outside buildings without coats for two hours in near freezing weather. For the next three hours, we had no radio, television, or telephones.

Commercial planes appeared overhead, poised to land, confusing us since there was no nearby airport (the nearby military base handled diverted Narita planes). Eighty percent of Japanese commute to work by trains, which shut down for seventeen hours, starting at 2:47pm Friday afternoon. The greater Tokyo area – one of the largest five urban areas of the world – was immobilized.

Astonishingly, SMS messages worked. Within six minutes, my wife in California texted what happened, where, and the estimated magnitude. And she learned that I was safe. Two hundred miles from the epicenter, Hachioji and Tokyo escaped this quake without major incident.

My first thought – to be so big in Hachioji meant tragic news nearer the epicenter. My second thought was what if the epicenter were twenty miles away? What if it happened near the Bay Area instead of Japan? The Loma Prieta quake, centered sixty-five miles from the Bay Bridge, packed only one percent of the energy of this "big one."

Terrorism, major accidents, and natural disasters have a special fear factor – we are hardly in control, in fact we're pawns. Over the weekend, I recalled a few personal incidents: (1) riding Swiss Air 110 that slid off the runway into Jamaica Bay at JFK in March 1978; (2) my 9am appointment on the 42nd floor of the World Trade Center South Tower September 11, 2001; (3) traveling in Europe for Hewlett-Packard in 1986, I took my mother, who loved the excitement of seeing the OPEC ministers convening in our Geneva hotel after the United States tried to bomb Kaddafi in April 1986. I told her if we saw 'red', it wouldn't be a Kafka movie.

We didn't yet know that I was one of the German Red Army's 32 targets when we dined in Paris a week later. Seven weeks later, they blew up her dinner mate in Bavaria. Mom and I were two hundred miles from Chernobyl when that nuclear plant blew up two weeks later.

My wife knew about these events from the press many hours before I could contact her to say, "I'm okay." Viva la SMS communications.

This weekend, two billion other people and I watched powerless as Japan's catastrophe unfolded before our eyes. I focused on the small – how to get to the airport, a trip that took eight hours instead of the normal two. Huge crowds thronged, seeking flights, consuming what was left of food. People were calm and orderly, even when yet another 7.0 aftershock rattled the complex.

What impressed me most was that thousands upon thousands of people will remember that last kiss or that last hug of a loved one lost forever.

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