Earthquake leaves depot employees stranded at Tokyo airport
April 25, 2011
TOOLE ARMY DEPOT, Utah -- Everyone who experienced the devastating earthquake in Japan has a different story to tell.
Chuck Holland and Gary Holbrook, two civilian employees from the Tooele Army Depot, Ammunition Equipment and Manufacturing Directorate, were stranded at the Narita International Airport, near Tokyo, for more than 24 terrifying hours waiting for a plane back to the United States.
Holland, Equipment Specialist and Holbrook, General Engineer; were in Japan on temporary travel orders from February 25 to March 12. Purpose of their visit was to analyze problems the Japanese were experiencing with the Deactivation Furnace that Tooele designed and manufactured for the 83rd Ordnance Corps (U.S. Army owned, Japanese operated) back in 2000.
Holland and Holbrook felt the quake while waiting for their plane at the Tokyo's Narita International Airport. "It took us approx five hours, 422 miles on the bullet train, going through several tunnels to get from Hiroshima to Tokyo," said Holbrook. "It was around 1:00 p.m. (Japan standard time) when we arrived at the airport and checked in our bags and at approximately 2:45 p.m. (JST) was when the first trembles of the earthquake hit."
Flights were then canceled after the 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck near the coastal city of Sendai in northeast Japan on Thursday, 11 March.
At that time, Holbrook didn't feel that the shaking was any cause for concern. "I have been in Japan before during an earthquake and I didn't feel like this was as bad as the others," Holbrook stated. Security guards started ushering approximately 13,000 people out of the airport on the cement tarmac, next to the plane, where they believed it to be safe.
"The thing I thought was so interesting was there wasn't a lot of panic. Sure people were scared but there wasn't panic and the Japanese airport employees really took control of the situation and kept things pretty calm," stated Holland. "I thought they handled the situation pretty good."
"We stood outside for about five hours in 40 degree temperature waiting for the inspection of the building to be completed and deemed to be safe to reenter," Holbrook said. "It seemed two or three minutes, but might have been longer for the first aftershock. Then every five or ten minutes the earth would shake, your foot would move up then down, then the other foot would move up then down, with each tremor."
"I don't know, maybe I should have been more panicked, but I felt like if the building was still standing, I was still alive, it couldn't be that bad," Holbrook said. It wasn't until they returned back inside the airport that they seen actual footage of destruction from both the earthquake and tsunami. Holbrook mentioned that he then thought this was a big earthquake.
Once the airport staff started letting people back inside the airport, they were able to go back to their gate and wait for the plane or any word about a scheduled departure time. Airport staff began handing people blankets, bottled water and some food. Few people were also given the airplane meals that they had on hand but there wasn't enough to go around.
"Blankets were the big demand, everyone was starting to get cold," Holbrook said.
"My heart went out to those people sitting in the airport watching all the TV footage of their towns and homes totally destroyed, not even knowing if they had family or friends in danger," Holbrook said.
Right after the earthquake, all the phone lines were down; they were congested for several hours after. Holland and Holbrook were able to get word to their families, via text messaging. "After sending several text messages, I finally received a reply back from my daughter but it was several hours later," Holland said. It wasn't until the next day that they were able to place a call.
Twenty-four hours later, there plane departed the Narita International Airport, heading home to Utah.