Judith and Lawrence ‘Mac’ McMurtry were starting to get a little ‘tired’ of being retired and still felt an adventurous spirit. They found an opportunity to live out their dreams of living somewhere overseas for a while. Their destination was Camp Zama, Japan. They never imagined the chain of events that were about to transpire. A 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the coast of northeast Japan triggered a devastating tsunami that swept over parts of the island nation and would trigger a nuclear catastrophe that kept the world watching.
Judith describes the day the earthquake hit: “The earthquake was terrifying, both because of the intensity and the duration. Four minutes of violent shaking is a very long time. There was a fire truck parked outside the clinic where Mac works and he said it rocked back and forth so hard its wheels came off the ground as it went from side to side. I evacuated our 9-story residential building with some difficulty (it was hard to stay upright).”
No mail, no gasoline, no TV or internet, no cell service, blackouts and aftershocks would stay with them for weeks.
“Our building suffered only superficial damage due to the earthquake building codes over there. Even the very tall skyscrapers in Tokyo did not collapse – can you imagine? Four minutes of shaking at a 9.0 seismic level and no collapse? The newer buildings are built on Teflon pads and have huge gyroscopes on the roofs. They build homes to the earthquake standards, too – with steel beams, steel crossbeams – and the house all bolted together. The interior drywall may shatter, but the houses will not collapse.”
The tsunami itself did not directly affect them as they were 200 miles away from the Sendai area. The damage to the Fukushima nuclear reactors, however, caused serious concern – and still does. Army Public Health officers checked the air and water every 3 hours and would continue to monitor it months later. The McMurtry’s were instructed to remain indoors with the windows closed on days that the radiation plume appeared likely to drift over their area, and were instructed at times that their tap water was unsafe.
Judith continues, “The way the Japanese handled this terrible tragedy has completely amazed us. First of all, we have learned they are beautiful, kind, mannerly and unbelievably honest people. This is our first experience living in a non-Christian country, and they are more honest, less critical and much less violent than we are in the United States – and yet they are not religious. They are spiritual but not religious. The calmness and stoicism they demonstrated in the face of this horrible tragedy is remarkable. May I give you a few examples?
-The commuter trains (all electric) suddenly stopped during the earthquake. The passengers calmly climbed out and began walking home – no screaming or shouting – just calm, helping each other exit the trains.
-People queued up at stores to buy food, water, etc. in the first days after the earthquake. We watched them politely wait in line to pay for their items. If the electricity went out (due to the rolling blackouts), these honest people calmly returned their items to the shelves and left the stores, as the cash registers were inoperable without electricity. There was no looting, no smashing windows to steal things, no guns.
-In Tokyo, many commuters were unable to return to their suburban homes because the trains could not run. Many large banks, car dealerships and hotels opened their doors to these stranded people and allowed them to sleep on the floor or anywhere else there was room that first night or two.
-We have many Japanese nationals who work here on post. A few days after the earthquake/tsunami, a clerk in our commissary told me how proud she was to work for the US Army. She had watched our soldiers loading up supplies to be flown to the Sendai area and had recognized the uniforms of our soldiers on TV providing support for the people of northern Japan.”
The McMurtry’s are now back home in Atlanta, Georgia, but they will never forget those harrowing months in 2011, the friendships they made and the humanity they witnessed.