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Thursday, March 24, 2011

My 8.9 Earthquake experience in Japan

A compelling account, forwarded by good friend, Sid Colquitt; the original appears to be from either Irma Wolfe or Linda Triano:

Hi, this is my brother, Randy's experience. He's a flight attendent and
the big earthquake hit while they were boarding. Then he had to fly back
there to pick up US people who are trying to get home. I wish he didn't have
to go back but I guess he will until they get all the people home. Please
keep him in your prayers. Very interesting.
Subj: Japan earthquake

Hi family and friends,

I've been getting a lot of calls from loved ones checking in on me after the
earthquake in Japan. For those of you who know I fly Japan regularly (so
that I can play tennis with my coach and friend, Hiro, at least once a
week!) I thought I would update you on the experience of our flight on
Friday, March 11, 2011.

Beautiful day in Narita. I played tennis with Hiro and he invited a couple
of other friends so that we could play doubles. Got ready for my report at
1:30 PM and took the Radisson bus with the crew to the airport where we
prepped for departure and began to board the plane as we would any other
work day. Full flight, so we started boarding around 2:40 PM.

The 8.9 quake hit at about 2:56 PM, right in the middle of the boarding
process. Business was full and most of the passengers were onboard. Once
we realized what was happening, the last passengers standing in the jetway
ran onboard. They were tripping and stumbling in a rush to get out of the
long jet way that was writhing like a 100 foot snake. It was hard to stand
up when the quake was at its peak.

The initial drama lasted almost 5 minutes. Unheard of in my experience with
earthquakes. They are usually 20 or 30 seconds and feel like minutes. This
one went on forever. Whenever the rocking motion of the plane would stop,
we got more passengers into their seats. Once we had everyone from the
jetway on board, we did our best to convince everyone that the plane was the
safest place to be at this time and in this situation. I really think it
was, too. Think about the stress an airplane withstands on rollout, takeoff
and landing!

The massive quake really moved the plane from side to side and up and down.
You had to squat down or lean on a wall or sit down to stay in one place.
The wings on our plane and the hundreds of others at the NRT airport were
flapping as if we were in extreme turbulence. Before we got any more
passengers on board, officials deemed the terminal unsafe. It was a mess,
sign posts as well as wall and roof panels collapsing, etc. The terminal
was evacuated and an announcement was made that the airport was closed until
Saturday morning.

Some of the other flights around us were deplaning passengers via the jetway
stairs. I assume that they were thinking the quicker they acted, the faster
they would get out of the airport area and find hotels, etc. I've seen that
approach work in the past. But, at the same time, we started seeing groups
of Japanese men huddled inside all of the luggage carts that are linked
together train style and are used to transport luggage to be boarded on
aircraft. These were airport employee ground personnel who had been told to
stay away from the building structure. They climbed in to get out of the
rain that was beginning to fall.

The Captain and I discussed the situation and agreed that the alternative of
getting off the plane to stand around on the tarmac was less appealing than
staying on the plane. We had food, water, drinks and toilets on the plane.
The airport facilities had shut down, there was no phone service and the
food and drink shops were shut down, too. On the plane they could have a
seat, try to use cells phones, although few could complete any phone calls.
Some searched for news on cell phones and computers but internet service was
also sporadic.

The Delta agents in Narita remained on duty but there was little they could
do. They really had nowhere to go and spent much of the time on the plane
with our crew. They had no communication other than their own personal cell
phones. They had arranged hotel rooms and Radisson buses for our crew,
since none of the incoming flights would be able to land and subsequently,
we would get their hotel accommodations. (The incoming Portland flight
diverted and the crew stayed onboard the plane with passengers for 9+ hours)
There were no rooms or transportation for our passengers. No rooms at no
Inns and the trains and highways had been shut down, too.

We knew we were in for a long day so we served everyone a hot meal and
basically ran a continuous beverage service. We played movies and the
entertainment system to keep them occupied. My crew was exceptional,
Roxanne Alviar, Katy Hu, Billy Pao, Janet Bernert, Junko Etherton, Atsuko
Weed and Jennifer Wrast. Friendly, kind, interacting whenever we were
needed. As a crew, we even managed some laughter and comeradery. The poor
agents finally told us that they were hungry, too, and there were no
facilities in the airport where they could get food. So, of course, we gave
them what we could, including the Business Elite mid-service snacks.

Five hours into our wait, a supervisor came on board and asked us how long
it would take for us to be ready for a flight departure. There was a break
in the earthquake after shocks, the runway had been checked and was all
clear and the air traffic controllers, having no where else to go, had
returned to the tower where all equipment checked out. The airport staff
was putting a call out to any planes that were in a position to depart.
Because we kept our passengers on the plane, we were one of only two planes
that got out of Narita, Japan that day.

Yes, the passengers erupted in applause when I announced that we were
preparing for departure. Seats up, seat belts fastened and carry on luggage
securely stowed. And we actually got out of there at about 7:30 PM. So
nice to get home in the early afternoon on Saturday, March 12! I had many
calls and e-mails waiting for me and I appreciate all of you thinking of us
during our Earthquake Experience. Yours, Robb

PS None of us had seen any of the images from the earthquake and tsunami
before we returned home. What a devastating experience for all of our
Japanese friends. We wish them well.

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