Elburn pilot unshaken after Japanese quake

By on March 18, 2011

Photo: Donna Peterson and her step-daughter, 17-year-old Kaneland student Veronica, gather with the family’s dogs around a picture of Charlie, looking forward to his return home. Photo by Sandy Kaczmarski

‘I miss my family,’ he says as he begins his trip home
by Sandy Kaczmarski
Elburn—Donna Peterson first heard about last week’s earthquake in Japan as it happened during a phone call from her husband Charlie.

“Honey, I think we’re having an earthquake,” he said.

Charlie is a United Airlines pilot and was on the 20th floor of his hotel in Tokyo when the earthquake started. Donna turned on the television in their Blackberry Creek home and realized that it wasn’t an ordinary quake.

Charlie gave a phone interview from Beijing (where it was 4 a.m.) and also recounted his experience in an e-mail.

He said he’s flown the route before and gotten alerts about quakes in progress.

“We ran into a crew that told us they’d just come in from Japan and there was a 6.0 quake,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m glad they got that out of the way before we got there.’”

Since the route he takes from Chicago is over the North Pole, “diversion areas are limited.”

“I was thinking, I really don’t want to land in northern Russia,” he said.

Charlie was able to land without any diversion and had been in Tokyo 24 hours before the quake hit. He said the shaking lasted for about two-and-a-half minutes.

“It was difficult to stand,” he said. “I realized there was a large picture on the wall that was shaking violently. So I decided the safest place was in the middle of the bed.”

His co-pilot was on the ninth floor and considered going outside, but also decided it was safer to stay in his room rather than risk having the entire building come down on him.

Charlie described the sound during the quake as a loud creaking, like “an old rocking chair made for a giant—times 20.”

Looking out his window, he said the buildings looked as if they were made of thick jello, swaying for nearly half an hour after the quake stopped. Tokyo has some of the most stringent building codes, and for a country that experiences 20 percent of the world’s earthquakes over a magnitude of six, he said Tokyo’s earthquake damage wasn’t nearly as bad as might be expected.

Charlie said once things quieted down, the first thing he thought of was his wife and kids. After the initial call home, phone service was knocked out, but he was able to communicate by e-mail.

“The aftershocks kept coming at a fast pace, and the experts said they will continue from this quake alone for another three years,” he said.

He spent 76 hours in Tokyo, and by the time he left for Beijing, there had been 277 aftershocks as high as a 6.6 magnitude. With space at such a premium in Tokyo, he said the convenience stores ran out of food right away, with empty shelves for the next few days.

One thing Charlie said he was struck by was the stoicism exhibited by the Japanese people.

“Everyone downtown was being orderly. People were walking out of a subway station without panicking or running,” he said.

“There was a woman in the hotel lobby who let out a loud shriek,” he continued. “She had just learned her son was dead. That went on for about 10 seconds, then she just got quiet, sobbing, and walked away.”

Pilots often are away for extended periods, and he pointed out they are gone the entire time and don’t get to go home at night. What started out as a seven-day trip ended up being nine days with the delays. He said he was glad to be headed home.

“I miss my family.”