Source: Sherman Publications

Oxford man on plane when Japan quake hits

by CJ Carnacchio

March 16, 2011

Let’s face it, between full-body searches, lengthy delays and rude airline employees, flying can be quite an ordeal these days.

The only thing that could possibly make it worse would be sitting on a plane in the middle of a natural disaster.

That’s exactly where Oxford resident Tim Collins was when an 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck off the eastern coast of Japan March 11, spawning a tsunami that devastated the Asian island nation, along with Hawaii and parts of California and Oregon.

He was sitting on a Delta plane at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, next in line on the tarmac to take off, when the massive temblor literally rocked his world.

“The plane just started shaking violently,” said Collins, who works as a mechanical/automotive engineer. “The wings were flapping up and down probably plus-or-minus 10 feet. We didn’t know what was going on or what was causing it.”

After the quake stopped, the plane kept “vibrating really bad” for two or three minutes

“The captain came on and told us it was an earthquake,” Collins said. “We all had our cell phones, so we started Googling it and seeing there was an 8.9-magnitude earthquake 150 miles away from Tokyo.”

It was the fifth-strongest earthquake in the world since 1900 and the most powerful on record to ever hit Japan.

During the quake, Collins said there was “no panic at all” amongst the passengers.

“I was surprised.”

The only thing running through his mind as the quake shook the plane was “I’m going to be stuck in Tokyo for a week.”

“We didn’t know about the tsunamis,” Collins noted. “About an hour-and-a-half after the first quake, the internet went down . . . Nobody knew, at that point, what the extent of the damage was.”

There was no damage visible from Collins’ vantage point on the plane.

About an hour after the initial quake, Collins said the plane was rocked by an aftershock in the 7.0-magnitude range.

“After about two hours, they cancelled the flight because they closed the airport,” he said. “They completely evacuated the terminal and closed it. They even evacuated the tower.”

Collins’ plane was towed back to the terminal, but none of the passengers were allowed to leave.

“They told us they were looking for somewhere to take us – some kind of shelter or something,” he said. “So, they fed us and we sat there another four hours.

“Finally, they came on and said we have nowhere to take you. The shelters were all full from everybody that was in the terminal.”

With nowhere to house the passengers, Delta made the bold decision to go ahead with the flight.

“They inspected the runaways and everything was clear. The lights were working,” Collin said. “The original flight was scheduled for 2:30 in the afternoon and we finally took off at 8:30 at night.”

As soon as the plane took off, Collins could see, from his window seat, fire trucks in the distance.

“Didn’t see any fires, just lights from fire trucks,” he said.

Ironically, Collins was only in Japan to change planes following his flight out of Seoul, South Korea.

His Rochester Hills-based company, Managed Programs, Inc., has an office in Seoul. The company is a leading automotive intake system design and engineering firm.

“We’re working on the new hydrogen fuel cell, so I was with the (General Motors) guys visiting a tool shop in Seoul,” Collins said.

The whole experience left Collins with an elevated opinion of the airline industry.

“I was really impressed with Delta,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of negative toward the airlines, but I was impressed that they fed us, kept us up to date and actually had the guts to continue with the flight versus shuttling us to some remote location and making us sit there for a week. I understand people are still there from the same day I was.”