It was just before 3 pm on graduation day at the elementary school in Northern Japan where Alex Golden worked as an English teacher when the ground beneath his feet buckled and roiled in waves. The kids had gone home, and Alex, a 24-year-old Colgate University grad, was chatting with his colleagues about the evening’s upcoming after-party. When the shaking started, Alex ran for the nearest doorway and tried to brace himself. “We’d had earthquakes before,” Alex says, “but always real little ones, so weak that they didn’t knock anything over. But this was the most powerful shaking I’d ever seen.”

Alex and his coworkers stood by helplessly as a trophy case came crashing to the floor and as desk drawers started opening and closing on their own. When the lights in the teacher’s lounge blew out, everyone ran outside to the baseball field, which was still covered in snow. As the teachers waited out what felt like a never-ending series of aftershocks, one of them pulled up a television broadcast on a cell phone. That’s when it all became clear. One of the largest recorded earthquakes in Japan’s history had just exploded off the coast, not far from the rural town of Osaki, where Alex lived and worked. The resulting 23-foot tsunami had smashed the country’s eastern seaboard and a terrifying number of casualties were being reported.

An hour later, Alex hopped in his car and drove home. “I got even more confused then,” he says, “because we could hear from the reports how bad everything was, but I couldn’t see any damage. But I could see lots of people going to shelters, and that’s what I did.”

Back in Philadelphia
On the morning of the Japanese earthquake, Alex’s mom, Deborah Golden, was jolted awake at 3:30 am by her clock radio. She was scheduled to take an early-morning flight to Los Angeles, where she had plans to visit her elderly father. When the radio came on, a newscast was playing and the reporter said that a tsunami was expected to hit Indonesia in five hours.

“So I immediately went to my computer to see where the earthquake had occurred,” she says, her voice trembling, “because I knew that the tsunami was probably the result of an earthquake. And it dawned on me, even in my bleary-eyed, groggy state, that it could have been Japan.”

When Deborah finally powered up her computer and realized that a massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake had in fact struck off the east coast of Japan, “my heart started racing, and I just got really, really scared,” she says. As Deborah explains it, the epicenter of the earthquake had already been pinpointed, “and I saw that it was really close to Alex.”

Cut off
When the Tōhoku earthquake hit in March, anyone within proximity to a Wi-Fi connection, a cell phone signal or a TV or radio broadcast found themselves being pelted with a series of ever-accumulating bits and bytes of information. Within hours, those of us lucky enough to be outside of Japan knew the location of the earthquake’s epicenter (17 miles beneath the surface of the earth, in an area off the coast of Sendai known as the Japan Trench). We knew the height of the tsunami’s waves, and the speed at which they were traveling (30 feet, and around 500 miles per hour, respectively). And we knew the names of the hardest-hit cities, which included Natori City in Miyagi Prefecture, as well as the city of Sendai, which sits roughly 20 miles south of Osaki, the rural town that Alex Golden called home.

And yet for those unlucky souls inside Japan, a country so technologically advanced that many of its citizens are now beginning to forgo personal computers altogether in favor of powerful smart phones, accurate information was increasingly hard to come by in the days following the quake. As Alex explains it, getting a proper message to his family back home in Philadelphia was probably one of the most frustrating aspects of the entire ordeal. And that’s saying something, especially when you consider that the day after the quake struck, Alex and two friends were essentially living inside a station wagon. The nearest public shelter was too crowded and the men still had no idea if their apartment building was structurally safe.

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Photo by Rei Sato

The city’s electricity was still down, which meant that computers and cell phones couldn’t be powered. Alex had two cell phones — a BlackBerry and a Japanese phone — and while they both had a bit of power left, neither worked. A few of Alex’s friends who had iPhones, however, found that their phones somehow did work. So Alex used one to post a brief status update on his Facebook page.

“I’m ok,” it read.

“I just felt unbelievably relieved upon seeing that, and I got teary,” remembers Deborah, who at that point was already on her flight to L.A., where she planned to visit her father. “I’m sure everybody was wondering what was wrong with this woman on the airplane!”

Over the next few days, Alex managed to post a slightly longer message on his Facebook page, and soon, he was getting emails from his mother on his BlackBerry, but still wasn’t able to send out any of own. “I was angry,” he says, sounding still frustrated at the memory. “I was completely confused. I was basically sitting in my car and staring at my cell phone charger, and fuming about the fact that for some reason, the service was only half working. And I still couldn’t respond to my mother.”

About four days after the quake, Deborah finally managed to reach Alex on the phone, and they spoke for the first time since the disaster. “She wasn’t crying,” Alex says. “Neither of us were. But she was very stressed. And I was very relieved to finally talk to someone in the outside world.” Deborah also used the opportunity to impart a bit of maternal advice. She was worried about possible fallout from the nuclear reactor that had failed in Fukushima, and she told Alex to get out of Japan by any means necessary.

Thankfully for Alex, both of his parents are well-connected attorneys. And in between interviews with MSNBC, CBS and the Philadelphia Inquirer, Deborah was busy working the phones, calling anyone who might have been able to help with Alex’s evacuation. “She was calling everybody she knew who knew somebody at the State Department,” Alex recalls. “She was calling people she knew who worked for congressmen. She was calling people she knew in the entertainment industry.”

Eventually, Deborah managed to get the attention of two General Electric attorneys based in Japan — friends of friends, essentially. They assisted Alex and two of his friends with an evacuation plan that only succeeded because Alex had filled his car’s tank with gasoline two days before the disaster. “So we designated my car ‘the getaway vehicle,'” Alex says, with a chuckle.

The trio traveled along back roads to Sendai, where they ditched the car and boarded an evacuation bus, which crossed the Japanese Alps in route for Yamagata. From there, they took a bus to a city on the Sea of Japan, and then a coastal train to the city of Niigata, where a bullet train took them into Tokyo. Which should have been the end of the story, and for Alex’s two friends, Ryan and Eric, it was: They flew home.

But for Alex, who had mailed his passport to the Vietnamese Embassy in Tokyo just a few days before the quake — he was planning to backpack through Southeast Asia and had sent for a Vietnamese visa — the adventure wasn’t over quite yet. It took him three days to secure an emergency passport from the U.S. Embassy.

Home
It was midnight on March 19 when Alex finally arrived at Philadelphia International Airport. “I was too exhausted to show much emotion,” he recalls. “But mom and dad? They were ecstatic to see me. They were waiting as close to the gate as non-travelers can possibly be.”

Exhausted or not, though, Alex has no desire whatsoever to leave Japan behind. In the fall, he’ll begin pursuing a Master’s degree in the East Asian Studies program at George Washington University, and he already has plans to study abroad in Japan before graduating. “I love Japan,” he says. “I want to make Japan my career.”

Courtesy of Alex Golden

And how does his mother, Deborah, feel about all that?

“Oh, I feel fine about it,” she says. “I was never worried about his being in Japan. This was a historic, millennial occurrence, and there’s not much you can do when Mother Nature rears up like that.”

But with a knowing laugh, Deborah adds that she will be making one small concession the next time either of her sons travels abroad: She’ll be sending them off with iPhones.

“Definitely iPhones this time,” she adds, with another deep laugh. “No BlackBerries — they let us down!”

 

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