We were taxiing to the end of the runway, maybe 5 minutes before full power would be applied and we would soon take off. Then it began to feel like we were driving over rough construction. The huge 747 bounced up and down, the wings flapped. It wasn’t nearly as bad as some mid-air turbulence I’ve experienced.
But we were not in the air! There is not supposed to be turbulence on the ground!
I kept thinking, “They don’t let multi-million dollar aircraft drive over runway construction! What is going on?” Then the plane stopped forward progress, but the bouncing and shaking continued. “What is going on?” The pilot later told us that he thought it was some unusual buffeting by the wind.
Then the pilot came over the loudspeaker and said, “Folks, we’re having an earthquake. We’re going to sit right here for a while. I’ve been flying 31 years and there is nothing in the manual about what to do when you are trying to take off during an earthquake!”
A few minutes later, the pilot announced, “Folks, the control tower has been abandoned. There is no ground control. We are not going to move the plane. We’ll just sit here a while.” A while stretched to almost 4 hours. Aftershocks occurred frequently each hour. Some were gentle, and some were almost as strong as the original earthquake. The pilot announced, “The terminal has been abandoned. Even if we returned to the gate, there is no ground personnel to operate the jetway. And you don’t want to be in the terminal during these aftershocks.”
Kay and I thought, “We’re safer here in the airplane. We are far from any buildings. This aircraft has excellent shock absorbers. We have 12 hours of fuel to push this aircraft from Tokyo to Detroit, so we have many hours of auxiliary engine to power the air conditioning and lights. We have comfortable seats. There is food on board. We are in the best place to wait out the aftermath of this earthquake.”
People around us were using their mobile phones to check news reports. We were keeping up with the increasing magnitude of the reported quake (first 6.6, then 8.1, then 8.9, and now 9.1). We heard about the tsunami hitting the east coast of Japan and the tsunami warnings across the Pacific.
Our mobile phones on the T-Mobile system (GSM system) do not work on Japan’s cellular system. But I remembered that Kay and I each have an Amazon Kindle with 3G world cellphone service for downloading books. And there is a very rudimentary web browser included. So, we fired up our Kindles. Kay posted on Facebook. I posted on Twitter and Facebook. I sent emails to family and friends keeping people updated. And Kindles have a tremendous battery life. Others’ mobile phones began to run out of battery, but our Kindles kept on working.
About the 4 hour point, the pilot told us that we had been ordered back to the gate. We would deplane. The airport was closed and all flights were cancelled. We would go to hotels and wait until flights resumed.
It was very disappointing. I knew there were thousands of passengers in the terminal. Hotels were overloaded. Aftershocks were still happening so it was not clear where we would stay. It looked like we would be in Tokyo for days while the aftermath was sorted out and passengers could depart.
The pilot decided to keep us on the plane for a while. He had been told that there was no space in the “safe area” to put additional passengers. He wisely decided to feed us dinner since it was unclear when we might eat again.
As we finished dinner, the pilot said that both Delta and the airport authorities had decided to allow the planes with boarded passengers to go ahead and depart. Kay and I thought that was an excellent idea. So did the other 500 passengers on our 747-400! He instructed the cabin crew to quickly stow the food carts, we refueled, and he took off before anyone could change their mind!
There was never any panic in the plane. Actually, it was more like the atmosphere at a casual gathering of friends. The Delta pilot did an excellent job of keeping us informed. Even when there was nothing new to announce, he spoke several times each hour keeping us informed. He spent time walking up and down the aisles meeting with passengers, chatting about possibilities. I have sent Delta a letter of commendation for the actions of the pilot and flight crew to make the most of the situation.
It wasn’t really until we landed in Detroit and saw the devastation on the airport monitors that we truly realized the magnitude of destruction. The text-only news reports on our Kindles told us the story, but the videos gave us the emotional impact of the destruction.
Kay and I are so thankful for many who prayed for us. We were less than 5 minutes from departure. If the earthquake had been 5 minutes later, we would have been in the air and not affected. But, if the earthquake had been 3 minutes later, we would have been racing down the runway at 180 miles per hour with the ground bucking up and down. I have no idea what would have happened, but none of the scenarios sound exciting to me as a passenger!
Several have written that they were awakened early on Friday morning and could not go back to sleep. Two told us that their visits to the internet alerted them to the earthquake and they began praying. We were among the many recipients of those prayers.
We thank all of you for your care, for your prayer, for your concern.
Our thoughts remain with the hundreds of thousands in Japan whose lives have been tremendously affected by these disasters and the continuing potential of a nuclear disaster also. The God of the universe is aware of every tear, of every heartache, not just from those who believe, but from pre-believers also. Our prayer is for their comfort, for their peace. But most of all, our prayer is for the Buddhist nation of Japan to experience the explosion of church growth that often follows a time of intense natural disaster. Mission Frontiers reports that 40% of church-planting breakthroughs among Muslim people groups followed some kind of natural disaster. (click here for the article) May it be true in Buddhist Japan also.