Japan beyond 3.11 Stories of Recovery

Strangers at an Isolated Airport

This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on August 10, 2015

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“The tsunami’s come! The airport can’t be used! We can’t function. It’s hopeless! The whole airport’s out of action!”
(Sendai Air Station, Japan Coast Guard)

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When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck four years ago(2011), Sendai Airport, a mere one kilometer from the ocean, was hit by the major tsunami. The airport was inundated and all its functions were incapacitated.

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A large number of travelers and local residents who had evacuated after the quake were left stranded at the airport. In a situation without essential utilities, it was the airport and airline staff who earnestly looked after all those people.

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“Those who are working here know the facility best, so we are the ones everyone can depend on.”
(Emiko Shoji: Passenger service staff)

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“We felt we had a responsibility to help all those stuck here.”
(Katsuya Hatta: IBEX Airlines)

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The airport was faced with another threat.

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“If oil leaked from the oil tanks, it would have turned the whole airport into a sea of fire.”
(Mamoru Otsubo: Airport manager)

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Russell Goodall, a TV producer from New Zealand, investigates what exactly happened at Sendai Airport that day.

“During the Great East Japan Earthquake, Sendai Airport was flooded by the tsunami. As all lifelines were cut off, 1,700 people, including passengers, airport staff and locals, were isolated. How did these people survive this disaster? We take a close look at how they evacuated from a tsunami-hit Sendai Airport.”
(Russell Goodall: Reporter)

Strangers at an Isolated Airport
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Located in the city of Natori in Miyagi Prefecture, Sendai Airport is the gateway to the Tohoku region.

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It is an international airport connecting nine domestic and six overseas cities that is used by about 8,000 passengers every day.

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The Pacific Ocean is only one kilometer to the east.

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“Well, I’m visiting Sendai Airport for the first time. The airport building design includes lots of glass, which lets in the sunlight and provides a very good view outside.”

However, on that day four years ago…

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At the time of the earthquake, there were around 700 travelers at the airport. At first, the staff evacuated everyone outside the terminal building. Three minutes later, a major tsunami warning was issued.

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Responsible for the terminal building, President Katsuhiko Ito immediately reconsidered the evacuation venue.

“For five kilometers in all directions, nowhere is higher than this terminal building. So, after the major tsunami warning was issued, many local people came here seeking helter. The highest floor, the third, is 17 meters from the ground. So I instructed the staff to use portable loudspeakers to tell every single person to go up to the third floor.”
(Katsuhiko Ito: President, Sendai Airport Terminal)

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The terminal building has three stories and a mezzanine floor. All those who had evacuated outside now moved immediately back inside and went up to the third floor.

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There were around 1,700 people in all.

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Some were elderly people who had been evacuated from special nursing-care homes for the aged.

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Airline staff guided the elderly disabled.

“We gave a helping hand to all those who needed one, including some people in wheelchairs. Some others were carried piggyback. Of course it was difficult for us female staff to do that, but the male staff and many customers offered to help, saying, ‘We’ll help you!’ or ‘Just get on my back!’, so that’s how some people made it up to the third floor.”
(Emiko Shoji: Passenger Services, Japan Airlines)

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The evacuation of the elderly was completed 20 minutes before the tsunami hit. 1,700 people stared out of the windows holding their breath.

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Around that time, another emergency measure was starting right next to the terminal building.

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These tanks hold about 2,000 kiloliters of jet fuel for refueling the planes. There was the danger that the tsunami could damage the pipes and cause fuel to leak.

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“Were you informed that a tsunami might hit?”

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“Yes, we were. We are responsible for dangerous facilities, so we had to make sure no fuel could leak if an emergency situation arose.”
(Shin Onodera: Pacific Airport Service)

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A jet fuel fire cannot easily be stopped, as it spreads instantly after ignition. So as soon as the earthquake tremors subsided, the team ran outside to the tanks to close the valves.

“If these valves are completely closed, no fuel can flow out. If you hadn’t closed them, what do you think might have happened?”

“There would’ve been a sea of fire.”

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As soon as the valves were closed, the team members also evacuated to the terminal building and escaped the tsunami.

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This video was taken by an airline staff member who happened to be inside the terminal building that day.

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“It’s so fast!”
(Airline staff member)

“Oh my God, here it comes! Can this building take it?”
(Airline staff member)

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“It was a panic situation. We didn’t know what to do. I had goose bumps.”
(Akira Mori: Pacific Airport Service)

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“All around, people were shouting and crying.”
(Emiko Shoji: Passenger Services, Japan Airlines)

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The power-supply facility on the first floor was submerged and the emergency power-supply was lost. All the travelers, local residents who had evacuated, and the airport and airline staff were left stranded.

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Sendai Airport had suddenly become an isolated island. Nobody knew when rescue services could arrive. All lifelines were cut off. The battle for survival by the 1,700 people trapped there began.

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One group of people immediately tried to secure food supplies after the tsunami hit. They were the airport workers who normally sold souvenirs.

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With insufficient lighting, they headed to the storage area located on the mezzanine floor of the terminal building.

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“This is the storage area. We immediately started carrying out everything, including drinks from the shelves back here.”
(Kazumi Ono: Sendai Airport Sevice)

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Sendai Airport is not a designated evacuation site, so it does not store a great deal of food and water. Ono and her team thought of a way to supply food to everbody that only they could provide.

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The souvenirs they usually sell came into mind. They thought every item on their shelves could be used as food items.

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One of those items is this confection with cream inside, a Sendai specialty.

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“We had so many people and didn’t know when we would be rescued. The confectionery items were all made using eggs, and we thought they could provide some nutrition. So we arranged one for everyone.”
(Kazumi Ono: Sendai Airport Sevice)

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“Can I taste one?....Hmm, it’s sweet and like custard. This would give you energy. It’s nutritious and the egg content would give you a boost.”

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A small packet of food items taken from the storage area was prepared for each person and delivered free of charge.

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They decided to distribute the food packets three times a day.

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After a while, some shops also started delivering medical products free of charge.

“Other shops voluntarily offered help, asking, ‘Is there anything we can do to help?’”

“Well, it seems to me you worked very calmly and were very systematic about what you did.”

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It started snowing. A cold wind was blowing in through the broken windows on the 1st floor, and without any power supply the terminal building was getting cold.

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The carpeted departure lounge on the 2nd floor served as the main evacuation area. The temperature that night was minus 2 degrees Celsius. But there were only blankets for 200 people.

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“Some people told me it was very cold.”.

“Yes. It was freezing cold. The Airport Terminal Building didn’t have enough blankets for everybody. So we had to say ‘We are sorry, but could you please share a blanket with one or two other people, even if you don’t know each other?’”
(Emiko Shoji: passenger Services Japan Airlines)

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Besides the blankets, Shoji and her team came up with the idea of using packing cushioning material and plastic bags. They delivered them to everyone so that they could get at least a little warmer.

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Because of the cold, some people became ill. The team took them to one area to receive care.

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“In fact we had a doctor and some nurses at the airport.”

“Among the passengers?”

“That’s right, yes. Being able to consult the doctor and the nurses provided us with a lot of assurance.”

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Earthquake aftershocks continued through the pitch-black night. As it progressed, few people were able to sleep.

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“Because there were no lights, we used torches to provide some lighting from above. We felt that might make everyone feel a little bit calmer. And we lit up the ceiling with torches so that everyone could use the toilets. Holding torches like this, we walked around asking people if they were cold or felt ill.”

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That night, something frightening occurred. It was a fire that broke out at the cargo facility next to the terminal building.

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“I heard that a fire broke out.”

“A car that had been washed away hit the facility and caught fire.”

“Did you see it?”

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“Yes, the fire continued burning for three days.”

“So during the night, it lit up the area?”

“That was all the light we could see.”

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However, because the valves of the jet fuel tanks had been closed, the fire did not spread to the terminal building. The speedy decision made by the fuel company saved many lives.

There were some foreigners among the 1,700 people at Sendai Airport. One Japanese man had to stay the night with foreigners who had been caught by the disaster and could not make themselves understood.

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Katsushiro Terasawa drives sailors back and forth between the airport and the city’s port. When the earthquake struck, he was taking six Filipino sailors from Sendai Port to the airport.

“It must have been particularly hard for those Filipinos who couldn’t really speak English or Japanese.”

“Yes, I think it was. All I had to do actually was take those guys safely to their destination.”
(Katsushiro Terasawa)

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Terasawa evacuated himself, guiding the sailors to the third floor of the terminal building. He takes Russell to the place where they stayed.

“Some of the Filipino sailors started saying they wanted to go back to their ship, but I told them that was impossible.”

“They wanted to go back because they didn’t want to stay here?”

“All I could say was NO to whatever they said. I could only say ‘Stay here!’ in reply to anything they suggested.”

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During the night spent on the cold floor, Terasawa came up with a way to reduce their worries.

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He used his handmade daily conversation notebook. He always carries it around in order to communicate with sailors from foreign countries.

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“These words are all Tagalog. There are many phrases here, and I used some of them to make the atmosphere more relaxed. It was ‘magandang babae’ that worked the best. Haha.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, in fact it means ‘beautiful girl’.”

“Oh, it does? I see. You were using such useful terms! Great international exchange!”


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One Japanese man was encouraged by a foreigner at the airport.

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Kenji Itaya, who lives in Hokkaido, happened to be at the airport that day because he had been visiting Sendai to take a university entrance exam. It was the first time he had ever been to Sendai Airport.

“We were still having quite a lot of aftershocks. The people around me were saying that they were worried about the terminal building collapsing because of all the damage it had suffered. That scared me.”
(Kenji Itaya)

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The battery of Itaya’s mobile phone had run out, so he could not contact his parents and he knew no one else there.

“I was there all alone. I was wondering what should do. I was really worried. I thought I should go closer to some adults. Then a woman from South Korea studying in Japan started talking to me. She also seemed to be by herself. When she chatted to me, I started feeling kind of safer and happier.”

As a result of that conversation, Itaya started communicating with the other people around him, and they spent the night encouraging each other.

“As you can imagine, being alone made me worry a lot. However, as soon as someone talked to me and I began talking to other people, my worries naturally became lighter. I was still worried to some extent, of course, but I really feel now that I could stay much calmer thanks to all those people who were around me.”

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The long, cold night finally ended.

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Right after the earthquake, the terminal building lost its supply of running water. An unwelcome problem occurred as a result: it concerned the toilets.

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There are about 30 toilets distributed around Sendai Airport. But because they could not be flushed and they were being used by 1,700 people, they were soon blocked, and bad smells started emerging.

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Again, it was the airport and airline staff who volunteered to clean the toilets. They focused on the water in the fountain on the 1st floor.

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“We used buckets to scoop up the water by fixing them to here.”
(Hidetsugu Takahashi: IBEX Airlines)

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The strategy was to scoop up the water left in the fountain to flush the toilets.

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They used a fire hose instead of a rope.

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“The hoses are heavy. They weigh dozens of kilograms, so you can’t handle one by yourself.”
(Katsuya Hatta: IBEX Airlines)

“Two people did it together.”

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The bucket relay was repeated hundreds of times. However, the problem could not easily be solved.

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“We had to be the leaders in doing something about the bad smell and we all shared the same thoughts. We wrapped our hands in plastic bags, and cleared out the toilet bowls. We kept on doing that. We knew we just had to do that.”

“We took a very realistic attitude to overcome the problem.”

“Of course you were on the side of supporting the airport customers, but you were also in the same boat as they were. Didn’t you have that kind of thought?”

“After all, we’re all working in customer relations, trying to serve our customers. So I suppose that instead of trying to survive ourselves we were working more for the sake of others.”

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It may not be obvious, but in fact Katsuya Hatta is a pilot. He happened to be on standby at the airport when the disaster occurred and started helping immediately.

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Sixteen hours after the tsunami struck the airport, the first rescue team arrived. They had responded quickly to the news it was cut off.

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It was a special rescue team that had driven all night from Toyama Prefecture 470 kilometers away.

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Masakazu Kohara was the leader of the team.

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He and five other firemen headed towards the terminal building in their boat.

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“We started out using the outboard motor, but all the debris in the water stopped us moving. So we removed the motor and started rowing with the oars. But it was very difficult to move forward and I had to think what we could do.”
(Masakazu Kohara: Leader, Special Rescue Team, Takaoka City Fire Department [then])

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In the end, they got out of the boat and waded through the chest-deep water.

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It took about one hour for Kohara and his team to reach the terminal building. They were met by an amazing sight.

“Despite its total isolation, it was like a proper organized evacuation site. The division between the injured and those who were not had been made very clearly. They even had different toilets assigned. Everything was under control.”

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Kohara’s team rescued six injured people who needed urgent treatment by boat, but everyone else remained at the airport.

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Another man was considering an escape route for all the trapped people.

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Mamoru Otsubo was then the airport manager in charge of flights.

“The runways are the parts that are the highest above sea level. The green areas were submerged, but I reckoned one runway was passable. I wondered whether by passing along this runway, we could escape to the side away from the sea.”
(Mamoru Otsubo: Airport Manager, Sendai Airport Office, Tokyo Regional Civil Aviation Bureau [then])

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Commonly, runways are constructed higher so that the rainwater will drain off and they will clear quickly.

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Otsubo thought they might be able to escape via one of the runways and the emergency gate at the west end, which had not been affected by the tsunami. But there was a big problem in achieving that.

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“Passing along the runway to get out via the west gate would be the quickest escape route. I thought we could use the runway as a road. However, the tsunami had washed away the plane towing vehicles, like you can see over there, and many pine trees and the wreckage of houses had all floated this way.”

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The runway was filled with debris. The airport office staff worked with the rescue team to manually remove the debris to create a path to the gate.

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“We were still having aftershocks and we were worried that we might have another tsunami. In that situation, I think every staff member got on with clearing the runway believing that it was what should be done at that time.”

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By 4 p.m. on March the 12th, an escape route wide enough for one car to pass through had been secured. And so the curtain came down on the 24-hour isolation of Sendai Airport.

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The experience influenced one young man’s career choice.

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Kenji Itaya, who is now 23, was a high school student at the time of the disaster. Since his graduation from university, he has been working at an elementary school as a special needs support assistant, aiming to be a teacher. What prompted him to become a teacher was his experience during the disaster.

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“At that time, I was helped by many people and returned home safely. I felt a sense of guilt that I had come back without doing anything to help. Having experienced that disaster, I feel that I must hand down to children in the future the importance of life and showing consideration for other people. So I want to become an elementary school teacher as soon as possible.”
(Kenji Itaya)

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Strangers in an extreme situation had to overcome the hardships of staying together at the isolated Sendai Airport. The fact that everyone showed consideration for others served as a vital lifeline for them all.

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“The people we talked to, they had put their emotion aside, they had put themselves aside to help others. And I think it was more than just a sense of duty, I think it was a genuine wish to help others, so everybody could work together to help people escape from this airport to safety. I think ultimately what they did, and four years later they know that what they did was right, and I think that has given them confidence to stay on. And some of them are still working here at the airport.”

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