Kobe's Hanshin Earthquake - Eyewitness Account

by Kurt Mundt      Kobe, Japan      January 31, 1995

(Originally written as a personal letter copied to friends, about 2 weeks after the Kobe Earthquake of Jan. 17, 1995.)

We are alive, we are eating well, and-- we are living in the home of (my wife) Kunie's parents. If I have to carry buckets of water to the house every day and go without a bath, it is a very small price to pay for our lives. Five thousand four hundred people do not have these inconveniences, because they are dead. I can say with utter conviction that it could be worse.

This earthquake took nearly everyone by surprise. In living memory, there has never been a earthquake even remotely approaching this magnitude in Kobe. There is much criticism of the government's response to the emergency, but I believe that this is unwarranted. No one can defend against the inconceivable. And I believe that nothing can stand the unimaginable forces that the earth can unleash. We slept at the epicenter of power beyond imagination and I can only wonder why none of us were injured. Let me give I you some statistics: 5400 people killed, 28,000 injured. 107,000 buildings damaged or destroyed. Three major highways destroyed, and seven railways knocked out. Damage to the port of Kobe (World's second largest container port and Japan's largest) is estimated at between 9.5 and 10 Billion dollars. Some of the damage to infrastructure may never be repaired. And to me the most awesome statistic of all is that all of this occurred in 20 seconds.

At 5:46 am, January 17, life as I know it came to an abrupt, shattering end. The apartment I was living in was severely damaged. The roof is gone. Everything that could fall, did. I had gone to bed at 3 am Monday night after a three day weekend, worried about waking up in time to catch the bus to work the next morning. I had felt tremors here before; my house was old and shook easily, but the shaking at 5:46 was like nothing I have ever experienced before. I thought the place was collapsing around me as dirt (from the roofing) cascaded onto my head. The world was filled with a bass roar, and the sound of breaking glass, of roof tiles falling, and the shrieks of rending old wood. It went on forever (I can't believe it was only 20 seconds...). I curled up in my bed and waited to see if I would die. After an eternity, the earth stopped moving- I was stunned and scared and full of adrenaline. Dust filled the air, choking me. In the pitch darkness, I threw back the covers and pushed my stereo set off of me. I groped my way to my desk across the room where I knew 1 had left a flashlight. The one thought in my mind was to get the hell out of the house before it fell down on me. I knew that I had to get outside, had to get to the gas line and shut it off. I could not find the light--everything was on the floor, so I gave up and felt my way into the living room.

There, in a drawer of my bookcase, I had put another flashlight just the night before. But the bookcase had toppled onto my glass-topped coffee table. Books and glass were everywhere. The inner doors of the entrance hall leaned into the room, complimenting the closet doors, which were nowhere near the closet. The tilted drawers of the bookcase had spilled their contents everywhere. I scrambled through the wreckage desperately once, then twice, and finally found the damn light. By a miracle, with the light I found my glasses, my pants, and a jacket. I crammed my passport and bank book in one pocket and climbed over the furniture to the front door.

The door was jammed. For days afterwards my back hurt from the force I used to open the door. All I could think of was to get to the gas shutoff. Fire is the killer after the quake. I knew I needed to get to the gas main. And I did. Outside, everything was a shambles. Roof tiles clogged the street. Dust filled the air. Smoke was already rising just South of my neighborhood. The smell of gas filled the world.

I don't know why, but it never occurred to me to worry about Kunie and her parents. Their house is around the corner from mine, but the first place I went was to my next door neighbor's. Their place had partially collapsed and I helped them out of the wreckage, cut their gas, and then ran to the street where Kunie's parents live.

I could hear gas hissing out of broken pipes. I saw a woman carrying a lighted candle and jumped her, snuffing the candle. I had just enough presence of mind to speak Japanese the whole time. I could see flames licking the sky just a quarter mile away. Everybody was in the street by now, their shocked faces white in the rising dawn. Kunie came out of the gloom and hugged me. I remember those minutes well, but the next 8 or 10 hours are a long blur. The family was uninjured, their house only moderately damaged. I left Kunie and her mom to the cleanup and wandered around, looking at the place I've known for almost ten years. The fire to the south grew larger, the smoke denser. I went to look.

It was obvious to me that there were far too few firemen, and far too little water to stop the fire. They tried to contain it but as I watched, I saw one home after another consumed. Ordinary people grabbed hoses and sprayed the flames, but at least 60 homes were gone already. I circled the burning area, surveying the extent of it. I could see it was spreading. We live only a quarter-mile away and I was afraid the fire would come to my area. During the day I kept going back and checking the progress of the fire. At one point, the wind shifted, and burning embers swirled over me, burning holes in my nylon flight jacket. By that time, I had found my camera and was taking pictures. Some buildings that were standing when I shot them are piles of cinders now. The fire here raged for 17 hours before it died and left almost 200 homes destroyed.

After the threat of fire, weather became our next concern. We were lucky in that the rains held off for almost a week after the quake. Plastic tarps became as rare as bathing, but on Saturday the 21st, we bought 8 tarps and spent the day covering the roof of this house. We were not alone--as far as I could see, people were doing the same. Our roof sustained fairly light damage, but the roof of my apartment looked too dangerous to deal with. Kunie, my brother in law, and I spent five hours cleaning the broken tiles from the roof and tarping it over. As I look at it now, I think that we did a pretty rinky-dink job, but the next day when it rained hard, we had no water in the house.

I wish I could say the same thing for my place, but it's falling apart, so we packed most of my things up and brought them here, and covered the furniture with tarps.

For the more than 290,000 people in shelters, weather is also a concern. Temperatures have hovered around freezing since the quake, and snow flurries have fallen the last few days. Most of the shelters are schools--the elementary school in my neighborhood has more than four hundred people staying in it. This school was a shelter during the last city wide emergency--World War Two.

An Army now occupies Kobe and the surrounding cities, for the first time since 1945. This time, of course, it is the Japanese Self Defense Force, which is assisting in the emergency with thousands of troops, trucks, construction equipment, and tents. Some areas of the city look like they have been carpet bombed. There's just nothing left. People have told me over and over that this looks like the war days to them. Kobe was quite heavily bombed during the war, and much of the city dates from the post-war period. Fifty years is a long time for some buildings and many of these just fell down.

For the first ten days I did not leave my neighborhood, and I thought that the foreign news that we watched on satellite was playing up the worst of the disaster. But three days ago, Kunie and I went to a local park where tarps were being given out, and met a photographer from the USA who'd come to take pictures. She did not speak any Japanese so Kunie offered to help her out. We spent last Friday touring the city and translating. I realized then that the news had not really seen the worst of the damage. The human scale of the damage is unbelievable, even to myself, and I'm here. Whole areas have literally ceased to exist. I have yet to exhaust my capacity for amazement at the catastrophic level of damage. After escorting Jane (the photographer) around I realized how lucky we really were.

During the first week of the disaster, the roads were so bad that food and other supplies simply could not get in. The elevated highways that you saw collapsed ran above the surface highways, which were blocked by the debris. Our family luckily had both food and water from the beginning. Both of Kunie's parents were children during the war, and remember starving. Kunie says this made them determined to never be hungry again, and so we had more than enough food.

The most amazing thing about this experience for me is that there was no panic. There was no looting. Shops opened the day of the quake. Cleanup started immediately. People stood in lines for food and water and were quiet and patient. Those who had money paid for what they received while those who had none also received basic necessities. Many banks were devastated, but they set up offices in other banks that were still functioning. Money is not a problem at this point.

February 1 1995

We have fewer and fewer aftershocks every day. The "experts" still say we could have another big one at any time, but I feel that we probably won't. I knocked on wood as I wrote that, too. They say there's been about 1400 aftershocks so far. Only a few hundred have been felt. It's strange, but at night, I can hear them coming--a low bass rumble, and then the house moves a bit. In the days right after the quake, the house moved quite a bit. My poor apartment is coming apart day by day. Oh well.

Yesterday, the Emperor of Japan visited the area. He is a kindly looking man who resembles my Father in law. The people he met seemed genuinely grateful for his concern. Last week, the Prime Minister, Mr. Murayama, also visited but people seemed unimpressed. One delicious news report showed an old woman in a shelter contemptuously remarking that his visit was all- well and good, but meant nothing. That clip was shown over and over, and that, along with other clips of Parliamentary wrangling in Tokyo has done little for the government's image. The Western media has taken to criticizing the government's reaction to the disaster, but people here do not seem much interested in the national government's actions so much as in the local governments'. The Emperor's visit was different, though. I wish I'd seen him too.

Things are slowly getting towards--well if not normal, then stabilizing. Daily, the roads and railways reopen lines to the outside. Rush hours have returned as people return to work. My job, Which I had thought lost, looks like it might resume after all. The warehouse I work in is on Port Island, an artificial island in Osaka Bay. I drove there the other night. The building is alright (who knows about inside though) but the whole island sank almost a meter into the bay. The buildings all look like they've punched up through the ground. I doubt that things will be normal for a long time. The Company President called me the other day and asked if I wanted to work. I do. My three-day weekend has turned into a three week vacation in (...not "Disney", instead...) Disaster Land and I'd like some dull old normal life again.

Some of you know that I was planning to return to Portland for summer school this June. Kunie says that one way or another I'll get there. It'll be nice to see an undamaged, clean city. Kobe was a beautiful city, a nice mix of ancient and modern. It traces it's history to the 12th century when the first. port of Hyogo was established, and I don't doubt that it will be beautiful again someday. But now, I'd like to see a clean, unmarred city. I look forward to June and a summer in Oregon.

Many of you have asked what we need. I need a bath, a good shave, and some clean socks. Seriously, we don't need for anything. But your prayers and well wishes are much appreciated. There are many others who need more. Temporary housing has been erected amazingly fast in our local park and relief supplies are flooding in. We'll be okay.

February 3 1955

Yesterday new damage estimates were released. These now total $95 billion dollars. Such a sum is impossible to imagine--except looking around, I think it will rise yet higher. for the foreseeable future. Still, I'm amazed at how hard people are working to return to normal life.

Well, time to get this our to you. It's been good to write this down and get some of it out of my head. I'll keep you posted on events here. Thank you for your calls and letters--they have helped us through a difficult time.

Go to-->  Japan Quake Info - Preparation Kit

Send comments to: paul@zzz.com

Go To Main Page:  http://www.paulzilla.org/