The day my life changed - The shaking seemed to go on for an eternity. I felt abject terror

6th May 2011 at 01:00

I was at home in my flat in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. I have lived and taught in Japan for most of the past five years, and have been in Sendai for two years. I teach English to children aged three to 18, and my first classes are in the afternoon.

Living in Japan, you get used to earthquakes - some are just a tremor, others give you a real shake and household objects get thrown about and broken. Most earthquakes begin with a rumble that builds to a crescendo and then stops. The 11 March catastrophe began with a bang and I instantly knew this was something that was going to make me change the way I think about life.

I had returned from the gym, where I had been discussing the strong earthquake that had occurred two days previously. I had just sat down to eat when the earth started to move with a colossal bang. I ran to stand under a door-frame which I had been taught was the safest place in the building - I have since learnt this is not true. I was clinging on to the door-frame, trying to stand, while watching my possessions being tossed around as if inside a snow globe. From the ground below me came a horrendous growling and shrieking which was mixed with crashing, cracking and banging. I felt abject terror.

While crouching in the doorway my only thought was that I did not want to die alone, so far from home. The phone lines tend to shut down during earthquakes and I realised I might not get the chance to say goodbye to my family. The shaking lasted for what seemed like an eternity. Buildings cracked and crumbled, bridges buckled and roads sank.

I rushed outside as soon as the shaking stopped. Crowds thronged the streets, afraid to go indoors because of the aftershocks. We lost power, and with it most means of communication. Warning sirens came on automatically, but it was some time before I knew about the tsunami that breached sea defences along the north-east coast shortly after the quake, rampaging through towns where I had friends and pupils. Fortunately, it did not reach the part of Sendai where I live.

The past month or so has been like a nightmare. Erratic food supplies and power, lack of transport and disrupted communications are nothing compared with the suffering of the people caught up in the tsunami. So far, around 14,000 people have been confirmed dead but the real death toll could be double that.

When the tsunami struck, children in schools across north-east Japan were rocked by the quake, and many waited outside or in assembly halls to be picked up by parents. Within minutes, thousands of children, parents and teachers were swept to their deaths.

This is the end of the academic year, and Japanese elementary schools hold graduation ceremonies for children who are moving to junior high school. In Ishinomaki, a short drive from Sendai, Okawa Elementary School is mourning the deaths of two-thirds of its children and teachers. There were 108 children enrolled in the school; 74 are dead or missing. Only five of the graduating class survived out of 21 pupils, and only three of the school's 13 teachers are left.

My friends and I have been doing what we can to help, by organising collections of clothing, blankets and groceries. I don't know when I will work again, although my company hopes to get classes organised.

Experts predict that the area of Miyagi where I live will have an earthquake even larger than the 11 March one within the next year. With each new tremor the thought enters my mind: "Will I survive?" This has been the most terrifying time of my life. It has changed me forever.

Neil Slorach has taught English in "conversation schools" in Japan for five years. If you have an experience to share, email

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