Seaford native survives quake Leaves office building in Japan just before earthquake strikes

By Lynn R. Parks

Heather Bennett had just left work when the earth began to move. "I was sitting in the car, talking with my husband on the phone, when I felt a little tremor," she said. "I was used to it; we feel those kinds of things all the time."

But the earth kept moving. And the movements were getting stronger. "There were two big jolts when it felt like the whole earth would fall apart," Bennett said. "I could see the blacktop moving up and down and breaking and the building I had just come out of looked like it was breaking apart at the seams. And through the phone, I could hear things in our house crashing. I screamed for my husband to get out of the house."

Bennett, a 1995 graduate of Seaford High School, is an industrial engineer for Honda of America. In July 2009, she and her family moved to Takanezawa in the Tochigi prefecture in Japan, where she was working on the development of new car models. Her husband, Edward, took a hiatus from his job as an accountant to care for their two children, Summer, 3, and Chloe, 20 months.

All four of them survived the March 11 earthquake that struck Japan, the most powerful known earthquake to hit that country and among the top five in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900. On Thursday, March 17, the family arrived back home in Columbus, Ohio, and on Monday, Bennett resumed work at the Honda plant in Marysville, Ohio.

But the office building in which she worked in Takanezawa was severely damaged, probably beyond repair. Many of the 1,500 people who worked there were injured, about 30 of them seriously. And two people who were in the building's cafeteria at the time of the earthquake were killed when the ceiling fell down on them.

Bennett is scheduled to return to Japan on May 20, to finish her scheduled two years there. But she is not at all certain that that will happen.

"There are still a lot of questions, including where we will work with our building so damaged," she said. "And we will not go back until radiation levels are safe for the children." The earthquake damaged several nuclear power plants that then released radiation into the air. Radiation has been detected in the country's drinking water and, Bennett said, is starting to show up in the nation's food, including vegetables, milk and cheese.

10-minute drive takes an hour

Takanezawa, a city of about 30,000 people, is north of Tokyo and about 35 miles from the Pacific coast. The city is also about 100 miles south of the nuclear power plants in Daiichi and Daini that were most severely damaged in the earthquake.

Damage from the quake was pretty significant in Takanezawa, Bennett said. Another Honda building, in which 8,500 people work and next door to the building that houses Bennett's office, suffered damage, she said. A skywalk that connects the two Honda buildings was pulled away from the buildings' walls.

On Friday afternoon, after the earth stopped moving, Bennett drove from her office building to the home that Honda rents for her and her family. "My priority was to get home and make sure everything was OK there, then to get to the kids," she said. Summer and Chloe were at their preschool, located in an older complex similar to a strip mall and about a 10-minute drive from their home.

"Traffic in Japan is typically bad, but on this day, it was terrible," she said. All of the traffic lights were out and blockades were across railroad crossings. After they left their home, it took her and Edward one hour to reach the preschool.

At the school, though, "everything was fine," Bennett said. "All of the kids were huddled at the school's entrance, waiting for people to pick them up."

After they picked up their daughters, Heather and Edward headed back to their neighborhood, checking on the families of her co-workers as they went. Cell phones were not working, but Heather was able to connect with her iPhone, the 3G network and Facebook to get a message to her family in Delaware that everyone was fine.

Heather is the daughter of Daniel and Diane Thomas of Seaford. Her sister, Danielle, also lives in Seaford. Edward's parents are Richard and Mary Ellen Bennett of Dover.

Friday evening, the family stayed with other families in one of the few homes in the neighborhood that had electrical power. "There were 20 of us, 11 adults and nine children under the age of 5, in a 1,200-square-foot apartment," Bennett said. "It was pretty crowded."

It was also that evening that the Bennetts, watching CNN through an internet connection, first learned of the tsunami that had been generated by the earthquake. While much of the tsunami damage that was reported in the news was in Sendei, north of Takanezawa and nearest the epicenter of the quake, Mito, the coastal town east of Takanezawa that was frequently visited by Bennett and her friends, also suffered much destruction.

By Saturday evening, power had been restored in the Bennett home, which was relatively undamaged by the earthquake. "We went there to stay, but we slept on the first floor," she said. "We were still having strong aftershocks and several times we grabbed the kids and headed for the door, ready to go outside if it got any worse."

Reports of radiation

On Sunday, Heather and Edward decided that they should get gasoline for their car. Reports of radiation from the nuclear power plants were increasing and they wanted to be sure that, if they had to flee, they were able to do so.

"My husband went to the gas station first thing in the morning, and the line was already about a mile long," Bennett said. "He came home and went back in the afternoon, but by that point, the station had run out of gas and was closed.

"The next day, he got up early and got there before they opened. He waited in line for three hours and got three gallons of gas." On Monday, "I felt pretty good about how things were," Bennett said. "We had enough food in the house and we could be careful with the gasoline. Eventually, I thought, things will settle down."

But by Tuesday, "I got this really bad feeling," she added. "Reports were coming in that we should not go outside, that we had to keep our children inside. The Japanese are normally a very calm people, but they started getting nervous. And then we heard that the radiation levels in Takanezawa were 30 times what they normally are. We decided that it was best to go to Tokyo."

They packed a suitcase, enough for four people for a couple of days, and headed south. They checked into a hotel, where their room was on the ninth floor. Soon, a strong aftershock set the building rocking.

"I was thinking, 'Oh please, just get us out of this country,'" Bennett said. On Wednesday, Honda of America decided to do just that. All 12 employees that were in Japan, as well as their families, were flown back to Ohio. When the Bennetts landed in Columbus on Thursday morning, there was a car there for them and while they didn't have a house to go to – their house in Columbus is being rented by a family from Japan – Honda had arranged for a furnished apartment for them.

"I really commend Honda for all they did," Bennett said. "They got flights for 12 families, at a time when it wasn't easy to get flights out of Japan, and made sure we had housing. They really did well."

Of course, all that the Bennetts had been able to bring with them was that one suitcase. "We really came here with nothing," Bennett said. But friends stepped up to the plate, donating clothes and toys and books for the girls.

Hundred-year quake

Bennett said that she has no qualms about returning to Japan, as long as radiation levels are back to normal. "It took 100 years for the pressure to build up high enough to cause the earthquake," she said. "Hopefully, it will take another 100 years to have another one like it." But for right now, she and Edward are happy to be in a place where the ground isn't rocking.

"We were so on edge that even a small aftershock made us stop in our tracks," she said. "We are happy to be on stable ground, someplace where the earth isn't moving."

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