Standing in a doorway of his office building with a fresh hot drink, Christopher Hope laughed as his co-workers dove under their desks when the building began to shake.
It was about the time the beverage sloshed from the cup and burned his hand that he realized this wasn’t like the small tremors he had felt over the previous two weeks he’d spent in Japan.
“At first I was thinking, ‘this is kind of neat,'” said Hope, a 32-year-old graduate of North Island Secondary School now working as a senior software engineer out of Idaho Falls, Idaho. “I’d never been in a real earthquake. Then I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness.”
As walls cracked, lights flickered, monitors tumbled from desks and smoke alarms blared, Hope and his co-workers began a harrowing run over the heaving floor toward the open air outside.
They forced open steel fire doors that had slammed shut, scrambled through a lobby filled with fallen wall tiles and other debris and wedged themselves through a pair of automatic glass doors that remained closed when the electricity went out during the magnitude 9.0 earthquake centered just northeast of their location.
“I remember thinking, ‘If this comes down, we’re never getting out,'” said Hope, the oldest of seven children of Derrick and Tina Hope of Port McNeill. “Windows were breaking, there were alarms, smoke, people yelling and screaming. It was chaos.”
Just a few more strides got them out of the shadow and falling glass of the building and into the relative safety of a roadway.
Relative, as they were now standing in the middle of the Fukushima Daiishi nuclear reactor compound.
Hope, the oldest of seven children of Derrick and Tina Hope of Port McNeill, had been to Japan several times in the preceding years, working three- to four-week stretches at a time installing hardware and software systems upgrades and providing technical expertise for that country’s nuclear facilities.
He had heard tales from Japanese co-workers who had been on the upper floors of high-rise buildings that swayed back and forth in the worst of the many quakes that strike the island nation. But whatever their previous experience, the worst was yet to come.
After escaping the shaking building, Hope got his first look at the wider damage caused by the quake, which was still shuddering minutes after it began. Across the street, a large crack scarred the wall of an electricity-generating turbine building, just below its roof. A portion of the nearby hillside had simply slid away.
While Hope and those around him were in the open, many more plant workers were trapped behind a large fence whose electric gates would no longer open. He said some workers tried to scale the fence while others worked in a frenzy to force the gates open.
They knew what was coming next.
“The tsunami is in the Japanese psyche,” said Hope. “All these workers were concerned the tsunami would come and get them while they were trapped.”
The gates were eventually forced open and the workers emerged to join the roll call being held in preparation for evacuating the area for higher ground.
“One thing I admire is how orderly things went,” said Hope. “They do regular earthquake drills; in fact, the week before they had done a drill. And when I got my badge to enter the compound, they took us through all the emergency procedures and safe areas.”
But a safe area was not in Hope’s immediate future. His passport and laptop remained inside the office building he had recently vacated. Since the building was still standing and the ground had stopped moving, he rushed inside to gather those valuables.
“That was pretty stupid, I realize,” Hope said. “When I went in, the room was knee-deep in debris.”
He returned outside just in time to join the group for a march uphill. A short while later, a small group of workers decided they had to return for their own valuables, and arrived back at the plant to find the ground soaked and littered with debris, as well as cars tossed into each other and into the sides of buildings.
“I think we missed the tsunami by about five minutes,” said Hope, who was later told the tsunami that rammed the nuclear plant was six metres high.
The quake occurred around 3 p.m. Friday in Japan, a couple of hours before Hope was scheduled to complete his latest tour. He had already checked out of the room he was staying in and had his bags packed for a trip to Tokyo and flight back to the States the next day.
That trip was about to be delayed.
With the roads now choked with refugees fleeing the area and no cabs available, Hope and his co-workers began a trek through blowing snow that lasted three hours before they reached a refugee shelter at dusk. Along the way, he saw downed power poles and one split in the ground that lifted a section of the road six feet above his head.
He also had the unsettling experience of watching a crack open up beneath his feet in a convenience store where refugees queued in long lines to purchase what goods hadn’t been knocked from the shelves and smashed in the temblor.
Walking through streets patrolled by vehicles with loudspeakers issuing instructions he couldn’t understand, Hope and his friends finally reached the shelter to find a standing-room crowd, no heat or running water.
“It was too cold to sleep,” Hope said.
About the time he was attempting to sleep, Hope’s family back in North America was just waking to the staggering news out of Japan. Chris’s wife Rebekah was alerted by his company, which assured her that he had been accounted for at the time of evacuation from the nuclear plant although nobody had actually spoken to him.
On the North Island, Tina Hope was awakened at about 6:30 a.m. by her daughter Jessica, who in turn had been given the news by her husband Braiden Downey, another Port McNeill native now working in Alberta. Downey is no stranger to disaster, having traveled to Chile last year as part of Calgary-based company’s role in the effort to rescue 33 miners trapped for 69 days at the Copiapo mine.
And when Tina Hope called her supervisor at work to ask for the day off, she certainly had a sympathetic ear: her boss is Jocelyn Dansereau, who just six weeks earlier had gone through a similar international crisis in trying to extract her own daughter, Amelia Stanevicius, from the upheaval in Egypt that led to the ouster of that country’s longtime president, Hosni Mubarak.
“She told me to take all the time I needed,” Tina said.
Rebekah Hope kept Chris’s parents informed by sharing her email tree with officials from his company. She teamed with those officials in a virtual round-the-clock effort to contact embassies, find ways to ensure Chris could access money and secure the first available transportation home.
But first they had to find out where he was.
“My cell phone wasn’t working any more, and there was no phone coverage, internet or any communications,” Hope said of his first day in Japan after the quake. After slipping out of the crowded shelter to catch a nap in a nearby apartment building leased by his employer’s Japanese partner company, he was awakened early Saturday morning to be told the 10-kilometre safety perimeter around the nuclear plant was being extended to 20 km and that that he had five minutes to pack a single bag and catch one of numerous buses lined up for the refugees.
The first of the three explosions that have rocked the Fukushima Daiichi facility since the earthquake and tsunami was just hours away.
After hauling his luggage much of the previous day, Hope had two minutes to consolidate his most necessary possessions into his laptop bag and grab one of the last buses to depart for Tamura, a community inland from the coast.
“It was a little scary,” he said of the trip. “We were driving alongside roads where huge boulders had come down. They were uneven, broken roads, and we could see where mudslides had taken whole sides of mountains down.”
They arrived at their next shelter, the gymnasium of a school that backed right up to one of those mountains. He looked outside to see a massive jumble of twisted playground equipment and shattered trees in a stew of mud and boulders that rumbled down the slope while students studied inside.
“It was amazing nobody was hurt,” Hope said. “If it would have happened a couple hours earlier, they said, all the kids would have been out there playing.”
In Tamura, Hope and his friends finally found a single working land phone line, though it did not allow international calls. After an extensive wait in line, the interpreter in his traveling party was connected with representatives of the local partner company and they were able to share their story.
“It was someone I never knew or met before, and they didn’t know the people we worked with directly, but they were kind enough to pass along a message,” Hope said.
That information somehow made it to his company and on to Rebekah, who shared it with her in-laws on the North Island.
“We were just sitting by the computer,” said Tina Hope. “We used Facebook and email to correspond with family.”
“I was too upset to even look at it,” Derrick Hope said of the computer. “My wife was the one to look at the emails and let me know.”
Back in Tamura, Hope and his mates had the standard shelter meal of a bowl of rice, banana and one bottle of water, then hopped another bus that took them inexorably closer to Tokyo and what he hoped would be his jumping-off point for the States. They reached an area where they were able to catch a cab to nearby Koriyama, paying $300 for a trip of less than 20 kilometres due to the shortage of gasoline that continues to plague most of the country.
Arriving late Saturday, they searched fruitlessly for an available motel room or rental car. They did, however, find a phone able to make international calls, and Chris finally spoke directly to his wife about his situation.
Prepared to sleep in the cold with a campfire, Hope’s little group stumbled onto another shelter and another fitful night of sleep, made a little less cold by the call home.
“I didn’t want her worrying about me,” Chris said of Rebekah. “And I found out my wife and my company had been working around the clock to reach me and help me get out.”
Finally, on Sunday, Hope’s rag-tag band — via taxi rides of $500 and $250 — reached the station of a train that could still run on tracks that hadn’t been bent and twisted, and made it to Tokyo.
It took them roughly 48 hours to cover the 240 kilometres from the Fukushima plant to Tokyo.
Upon arriving, they got a motel room, “a decent meal,” and their first showers in three days. Hope also got his first look at the scope of the disaster in television news coverage.
“I can’t describe the devastation,” Hope said. “We were taking surface roads through towns and cities, seeing large buildings collapsed, roads upheaved, abandoned and wrecked cars. The whole time, I wasn’t worried about my safety, until I actually saw the news footage in the motel room in Tokyo.
On Monday, Hope finally made it to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport and a flight to Portland, Ore., where he was reunited with Rebekah and daughter Savannah. He also called his parents directly for the first time, bringing an end to their own odyssey of fear.
“When I heard his voice on the phone and knew he was back in North America, that made my day,” Derrick Hope said. “Seeing all the damage and not knowing where he was, not hearing from him, it was very stressful.”
“Now our concern is for other people,” Tina added. “What I felt is what the Japanese people are going through every day. We went through it for a short period of time.”
For Chris, though, the effects may linger. Surviving moment-to-moment with the help of his Japanese co-workers in the days after the earthquake took all his attention and energy, and he said he wasn’t consciously aware of personal peril at the time. Since he boarded the plane back to the U.S., though, his mind has replayed the images in a loop he can’t shut down.
“We had it bad, but then I saw video of the huge tsunami that washed away a whole town about an hour north of me. I haven’t been able to sleep very well the last couple of days; every time I close my eyes I see the devastation. I think there’s some emotional damage.”
He will also need to get tested for radiation exposure, though he is confident he got away from the nuclear plant before any significant radiation was released. Still, it could have been much worse for him and for his family back home.
“It feels real good to realize how lucky I was to have gotten out of there,” Hope said. “The building could have fallen on me, or I could have been trapped inside when the tsunami came. Or I could have been stuck in the reactor room, which I was in earlier that morning.
“It’s only afterward you realize what danger you were in.”