'It felt like hours, even though it was just a few minutes'

Juneau woman recounts being in Japan when the earthquake struck

Posted: Monday, March 21, 2011

Heather Sincic had been in Tokyo about a week and was using a rare moment of downtime to send an email back home to her teenage daughter in Juneau when she felt the tremor. She typed out, “I think there’s an earthquake right now. Have to go,” made sure the message sent and evacuated the hotel with everyone else.

At that moment all she thought was: “If this is the last thing anyone hears from me, at least it will be to my family.”

She waited with the other guests for hours until the all clear came to go back up to her room. During this time, all she could do was wait with the others, none of whom spoke English, and make sense of what had just happened in the country.

Sincic hadn’t even planned on this trip. She was called to Tokyo for work on a day’s notice. Sincic is a wig master for professional theatrical productions and traveled for a large-scale production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. She had been there about a week working through 10 completed performances.

There would not be an 11th.

She described the event that Friday as a sudden feeling of movement, which at first she thought might be her. Then it started again and she heard people scurrying to the exit. She said the shaking was quick but intense; she could barely keep her feet on the ground at first.

“It felt like hours, even though it was just a few minutes,” she said.

She said one of the scarier aspects of being there was that everything, signs and such, were in Japanese so she had to rely on her own sense and what the crowd was doing to navigate through.

She followed the procession of hotel guests to the parking lot. She said the evacuation was actually extremely civil with calmness and no screaming.

“I was shaking because it was scary. I didn’t have anyone from my company around,” she said.

It was more than an hour before the people were let back inside, but well into the evening before they could actually go upstairs.

“After that kind of scare, I just wanted to do something normal, so I did laundry in bathtub because it felt like something I could control,” she said.

During the ordeal, she also made sure to call her mother in Seattle since she knew her mom would hear about this on the news.

She returned five days later, as the production companies decided there was too much damage to the Forum Theatre’s ceiling and orchestra pit overhang to continue the show. They felt the areas should be reinforced first.

“That was very sad because there’s quite a bit of cost to the theater,” Sincic said.

Being several hundred miles away from the tsunami strike, which she felt was an indication of its strength since they felt it so far away, reinforced the idea this was the start of a major crisis. She said the days after the earthquake were a real eye-opener when seeing the news and hearing what the people were going through. She said, as a visitor, it was taxing just not being able to do simple things to help generate a sense of routine but that did not compare to what the people there were facing.

“I put it in perspective. Here I am in a major city and my biggest problem is not being able to buy a sandwich in the store,” she said. “What would it feel like if I lost my home or loved ones or even a dog.”

She said the people in that country need as much help as they can get and people here ought to be willing to put worth some extra effort to give it to them.

“In my perspective what little I suffered showed that anyone in the United States, period, especially here in Alaska because we get used to cold or rough weather, should all think about giving an extra $10 to the Red Cross,” she said, adding there are other local organizations to give relief.

“If everyone gave 10 bucks, it would help these families out so much. I’m more concerned about finding people surviving rather than worry about radiation that we can’t control,” Sincic said. “Helping people, we can control that.”

As for the local reaction she witnessed, she said everybody was completely unnerved and shaken. Sincic described how her friends and exchange students there are prepared for earthquakes and even have emergency kits, but every single person she knew was completely shaken by this situation. She said that later that week they were disassembling wigs when an aftershock hit, setting off phones. It wasn’t taken lightly.

While many people learned of the events in Japan from various news sources, Sincic’s 16-year-old daughter, Megan, was introduced to the foreign nation’s trauma by that early morning email before going to class at Juneau-Douglas High School. She spoke to her mother not long after, helping relieve her worry from not knowing what she was doing there. She later learned in math class just how big the earthquake was, saying it was scary to know her mom was that close to such a devastating event.

Being in Japan, especially at the start of the crisis, gave Sincic a new outlook on the Japanese people.

“I’ve never seen a kinder nation of people, so proud and polite and the last people to ask for a handout and they’re the first that should get it,” she said.

There were several personal touches in the highly emotional time. While waiting outside the Grand Prince Hotel, she helped an older woman get water for her husband, saying, “It was interesting that the language barrier didn’t matter when we had to settle our nerves and do the basics.”

She said even a construction crane that wavered from the quake was kept under control by the operator who made sure to align it for safety rather than fleeing.

Something else that caught her attention was the kimono graduation ceremony in the hotel that was disrupted, leaving the young girls stranded outside for hours in rather uncomfortable garments. Yet, she did not hear any complaints or crying.

She said even working with the Japanese cast and crew before the quake proved them to be among the most talented, professional and exact people she has worked with.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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