BELFAST, Maine — Former Belfast resident Michael Shell was teaching a business English class on the ninth floor of a downtown Tokyo building Friday afternoon, Japan time, when a student announced that an earthquake was beginning.
“It started off subtle and gentle,” he posted in a comment on the Bangor Daily News website hours after the earthquake hit. “Soon the building started to sway, and then things became a bit more drastic.”
Shell said he decided to “break things up a little” and lead his five students in some yoga exercises as the 8.9 magnitude earthquake continued to cause the building to rattle. He estimated that the first quake lasted about 10 minutes.
“I think we all felt like we were on the edge of death,” he wrote. “I figured it was a 50-50 proposition at best.”ka
Shell continued with his yoga instructions, telling the class to inhale, exhale and relax.
“There’s nowhere to go … there’s nothing to do … just breathe,” he wrote that he told them. “And as things started to fall and the rumbling got louder, I began chanting ‘Ommmm’ over the loud noises.”
Riding out the earthquake felt like he was sailing in rough waters on his sister’s sailboat in Camden Harbor, he wrote.
“Strangely enough, I didn’t feel fear. I accepted what was occurring,” he wrote. “It was obviously a treacherous experience, but like being caught in a storm at some point, all you can do is ride it out.”
As Shell and his students rode out the earthquake in Japan, numerous Mainers with ties to the Far East country wondered and worried about the status of loved ones.
Kanaho Dean’s husband was surfing the Internet late Thursday evening, Eastern Standard Time, when he learned that an earthquake had hit her home country of Japan.
Her first thought was one of apathy.
“There are so many earthquakes, I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Dean, 31, said Friday at Yoshi Japanese Restaurant in Brewer, where she works as a waitress.
When things turned worse, Dean thought of her family back home. She called her sister, but the phones were down. So, she e-mailed.
The reply came quickly.
“Everything was fine where they are in Yokohama,” she said of her former home about an hour from Tokyo. “There was a lot of damage though.”
Dean said she’ll get a firsthand look at the damage next month when she travels home for the first time in three years.
Carolyn Beem, a spokeswoman for L.L. Bean, which has 19 retail stores throughout Japan, said the company’s 300 employees there were all accounted for.
“The time difference has made things difficult,” Beem said. “A lot of phone lines were down. One employee had to walk five hours home because the trains were down.”
For Shell, it wasn’t the first time he has survived a major disaster. He was working on 43rd Street in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, when the twin towers were hit by terrorists.
“I walked down to the World Trade Center to see what was going on and to see if I could help,” he said Friday in an interview conducted over the Internet at 2 a.m. Japanese time. “I was one of the few walking in that direction. There wasn’t much I could do.”
It was amazing how helpful and supportive people become in disasters, he said, adding that he figures he has learned some big lessons through his experiences.
“My learning is to live without regrets,” he said. “We are spiritual beings, living in a physical body. The body dies, but who we are doesn’t die. It’s not that hard — I just had to experience almost dying [to learn it].”
Shell and his family moved to Japan from Belfast in late October and have been living in Kawasaki City about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo.
He said that the train service had been disrupted on Friday because of the earthquake. His wife, Fukiko, had their two little boys, ages 3 and 6, with her on one of the trains when the quake struck.
“She was stuck on the train for a while,” he said. “[Fukiko] ended up walking with them to get home for eight hours.”
Phone service was also disrupted, which hadn’t happened on 9-11, he said. But he and Fukiko were able to communicate by sending e-mails with their phones.
Because of the train problems, Shell was not able to make it home to his family, but instead was staying the night in the downtown Tokyo office building where people were trying to get some sleep. He said that he figured the trains would be running again by morning.
“They are pretty good at fixing things here,” he said. “This is the best city to be in for earthquakes.”
On the first day of orientation for his job, Shell said, the trainer spoke about earthquake readiness for the first hour.
“He said the safest place to be is in the building because they are made to sway,” Shell said. “It’s amazing how strong they are.”
The trainer said that people would appreciate the rules and order when the big earthquake comes.
“He kept saying, ‘There is a 100 percent chance that the big one will hit,’ and he was right,” Shell said.
Shell said that there were many, many aftershocks, which felt at times like one continuous wave. He thought that the building might still be swaying almost 12 hours after the first quake hit.
“I’m a little queasy, so it might be my imagination,” he said.
In his online comment, Shell wrote that everyone in the class felt queasy after the first quake, as if they had “weathered a mighty Down Easter.”
At first, he continued with the English class, writing on the whiteboard the words earthquake, rumble and surreal. Then someone came to say that part of the building had cracked, and soon after the first aftershock, the class walked nine floors down and searched for higher ground.
“Down on the ground, I almost began to cry,” he wrote. “Life felt so tender and precious in those moments.”
Shell later returned to the building where he was waiting to be able to go home to his family. He was anxious to let friends in Maine know that they were OK.
“I feel grateful to be alive,” he wrote in his comment. “Live well, Mainers, we only live once, or so I am told.”
University of Maine business and marketing professor Paul Myer and his Japanese wife, Keiko, who also works at UMaine, were among those keeping a close eye Friday on the damage.
Keiko Myer had spoken with her family members by cell phone. Much of the information has come from outside the country because many of Japan’s communication and telephone systems have been incapacitated by the destruction.
Paul Myer, who is scheduled to visit Japan on May 15 with 20 UMaine MBA students and has lived and worked in Japan, said, from an economic perspective, the devastation is certain to affect markets beyond Japan.
“When the world’s third-largest economy comes to a standstill, it’s going to have an effect,” he says. “How long it’s going to take them to get in a mode of normalcy is going to be problematic. It is going to affect economies around the world. It’s potentially going to affect the distribution of oil, as well.”
While Japan was digging out from the earthquake, the resulting tsunami waves rippled toward Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States.
Air Force Staff Sgt. John Curtis, originally of Orono, is stationed near Honolulu and lives close to Pearl Harbor about a half-mile from the ocean.
He said Friday morning that the tsunami spawned by the Japanese quake had not affected his area, although he had heard about the evacuations of parts of Honolulu and also that there may have been more damage on Maui.
One thing that was different Friday morning was the decreased numbers of vehicles on the roads, which Curtis said was caused by tsunami-related closures. Classes had been canceled at the school where his wife, Sarah Curtis, teaches.
Editor’s Note: John Curtis is BDN reporter Abigail Curtis’ brother.