When Vermillion resident Ross Dickenson arrived in Tokyo on Friday, he did not plan on staying very long.
However, what was supposed to be a two-hour wait between flights turned into a nearly two-day ordeal when Japan was rocked by the massive 8.8 earthquake, the after-effects of which still plague the nation.
Dickenson had been in South Korea for an annual military exercise, and arrived at Tokyo�s Narita International Airport just after 1 p.m. Friday, with plans to catch a 3:10 p.m. flight to Minneapolis.
The disaster struck when the passengers were boarding the 747.
�Almost everybody was loaded when the wings started to flap. The airplane started going up and down. It felt like very, very turbulent air,� Dickenson said. �At that point they loaded the other 30 to 40 people that were supposed to get on the plane. They said the safest place was actually on the plane.�
The plane was further rocked by a series of aftershocks, some of which Dickenson said felt as strong as the initial earthquake.
�Everybody seemed to be fairly calm,� Dickenson said of his fellow passengers. �It was more of a curiosity about what was going on. The flight attendants at that point were going throughout the plane and telling people they were as safe as they could be, just to relax and that we would be there for a while.�
This was not an understatement.
�About four hours into sitting on the tarmac, they made an announcement that they were going to cancel the flight,� Dickenson said. �There was only a slight problem � they couldn�t go into the terminal because the terminal had fallen. The hotel they planned to take us to had neither water nor power.�
The passengers waited for an hour and a half. Then the message came that the plane would take off after all � in 30 minutes.
Thirty minutes passed. Then one hour.
After seven hours of idling on the tarmac, the plane finally launched for its 10 1/2 hour flight.
�(The pilot) said we were lucky � there were only five (planes) that were going to take off from Narita Airport,� Dickenson said.
Nobody on the plane apart from the pilot and crew knew the full scope of the disaster at that point.
�We knew it was significant because of the amount of rolling the plane was taking,� Dickenson said. �You could see the wings kind of flapping up when each one of those shocks came on. The pilot, as we were leaving, said, �Ladies and gentlemen, you�ll be surprised at the damage that this caused.� And we anticipated him saying something further to illuminate what the damages may have been.�
He did not. Furthermore, the flight attendants were nowhere to be found for the first eight hours after takeoff.
�I would have really liked to have a nice cold beer after that, but that didn�t happen,� Dickenson said.
Both during and after the earthquake, communication through electronic devices proved impossible.
�I pulled out my computer and tried to e-mail, but didn�t have any reception,� Dickenson said. �Some people pulled out their cell phones, but either the cell towers were down or there was no connectivity. So nobody could tell anybody anything. A couple of the Japanese flight attendants � for a period of about five minutes � could actually talk to somebody, but it was a very short timeframe. Anybody that had an international cell phone (was) not successful in reaching anyplace.�
Dickenson was finally able to call his wife Sandy after he arrived in Minneapolis between 5 and 5:30 p.m.
�She was pretty savvy,� Dickenson said. �She had already figured out what was going on, that the plane actually did take off.�
His final flight arrived in Sioux Falls at 1 a.m. Saturday.
�By the time I got back home, that day had turned into about 40 hours, so I was tired,� he said.
Dickenson described the experience as exciting � and boring. He added that he was glad to be on one of the few planes able to make it out of Narita Airport.
�There was a large number of smaller aircraft (on the tarmac),� he said. �I looked at them and I knew they had nowhere to go, and I felt bad for them. But I feel very lucky that we were able to go.�