YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan --
Keichi Nishimura, now the assistant fire chief of the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron fire department, was looking forward to an early dismissal Friday, March 11, 2011. It was a slow day, and the weather was good. Winter was coming to a close and the cherry blossom wave was sweeping northeast across Japan.
At approximately 2:46 p.m., the street outside began to flex and flow. Cars in the parking lot were literally jumping, he said. Car alarms started going off. Decorations on the walls slowly started to vacate their shelves as the intensity built over the course of the next six minutes.
Phones started ringing.
A 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck the north-western Pacific Ocean 32 kilometers deep, which is pretty shallow for an earthquake. It was 72 kilometers from the Oshika Peninsula of eastern Japan.
A tsunami was on the way.
Eleven civilian aircraft were diverting to Yokota Air Base, carrying over 500 passengers from around the world. They had no airport to go to and needed to land.
Reynold Mateo, then 374th Civil Engineer Squadron fire chief, told Nishimura-san to stand by on the flightline with other emergency responders in case they were needed for any inbound aircraft.
Members of base operations began coordination with a logistics readiness team and a host of other agencies to shuttle people from the aircraft to the Taiyo community center where they would be held until they began the next leg of their journey.
The tsunami hit east Japan with a destructive force rarely seen in modern day society. The dead were reported at 15,899 and the number keeps going up as 10 years later, they’re still assessing the damage done.
Nobuhito Takeda, a 374th CES fire truck driver and operator, was at home when the earthquake hit, but when he arrived at work the next day, news was starting to spread of the extent of damage from the tsunami.
The Fukushima Dai-Ichi (And Dai-Ni) nuclear reactors had been damaged by the tsunami. Daiichi was, at that time, one of the 15 largest nuclear power plants in the world.
In layman's terms, a nuclear power plant has several reactors which generate incredible heat as a byproduct of nuclear fusion. To keep the reactors cool, there are pumps that circulate water around the reactors. The water absorbs the heat and is pushed on to be cooled and replaced with cooler water.
When the earthquake hit, the reactors that were currently working automatically shut down, but still needed to be cooled. That task falls to a group of backup generators that were now powering the pumps.
Thousands of tons of seawater rushed in, rendering the backup generators inoperative and some of the reactors began to overheat.
This meant the structural integrity of their containment vessels was growing increasingly more compromised – increasing risk of releasing radioactive materials.
Three reactors reached complete meltdown. A 30-kilometer evacuation order went into effect immediately.
Emergency management personnel from all over the Pacific were sending aid to Japan to reduce the risk to human life as much as possible - and to stop what had the potential to be the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Yokota Air Base was no exception.
“Our priority is to protect Yokota, so we want to help, but need to make sure we are still able to protect our area of responsibility,” Nishimura said. “We sent one fire truck, but so did other bases around Japan, from the Navy, Air Force, etc.”
The Yokota metals technology shop went into 12-hour-shifts to design and produce couplers that adapted Australian fire trucks to Japanese hoses and the fire department sent a fire truck to help cool the reactors.
Volunteers were hard to come by. Seeing nobody else was keen to drive a fire truck to a potentially irradiated city, Takeda swallowed his own fears and raised his hand.
“Of course I was scared,” Takeda said. “I didn’t want to go, and my wife didn’t want me to go, but nobody else was offering. So, I raised my hand.”
It’s been said before that bravery isn’t action without fear, but action in spite of fear. That certainly showed itself in Takeda’s actions that day.
He gathered his things and left to build a convoy with the Logistics Readiness Squadron around 10 p.m., they were to leave at midnight.
Fukushima is a five-hour drive from Yokota Air Base under normal conditions – longer in a convoy with large trucks. Leaving at midnight and being escorted by each prefecture’s local police as they progressed, sped the process up significantly. Takeda said they arrived in the Fukushima prefecture, just a bit short of the actual nuclear plant sometime in the early morning.
Not having slept yet, Takeda spent two hours teaching the local responders who would be on-scene how to use an American fire truck before hopping back in the convoy and heading home.
“I’m seriously very proud of Takeda-san’s efforts to help Japan, and to help Fukushima,” Nishimura said.
Through the process of cooling the reactor, the truck was irradiated and could not be returned to service, so it was given to the Fukushima prefecture who still has it today.
The 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear meltdown changed Japan forever. It has left an indelible mark on Japanese culture and will go down in history as a string of interconnected disasters the world will always remember as a tragedy.
That story will also be an example that the teamwork between the U.S. Armed Forces and its Pacific allies isn’t limited to warfighting, but to creating a safer Indo-pacific.
“After the earthquake, many civilian firefighters from America came to Fukushima to help with the search and rescue operation in east Japan,” Nishimura said. “I will never forget America’s kindness.”