Four English teachers from Spokane shared a potluck dinner and toasted their luck Wednesday as nighttime sirens reminded them that they had survived Japan’s worst earthquake in 70 years.
“Kampoi!” they said, toasting their future by clicking their clear plastic cups of beer and orange juice.
The Spokane teachers - and another instructor from China and her husband - pooled their resources and dined on brown rice, pickled vegetables and buttered toast at teacher Marilyn Brennan’s apartment.
They needed only to look out the window to know how lucky they were. Spokane’s sister city of Nishinomiya lay in ruins.
Collapsed buildings littered the cracked streets and downed power lines swayed in the wind.
Close to the teachers’ apartments, the Hanshin Expressway had fallen, with huge chunks littering another road below. The front of a bus perched precariously over a jagged edge of the expressway.
Hordes of people mobbed the Kitaguchi train station in Nishinomiya, as a mass exodus combined with a flood of incoming people bringing food and supplies to family members here.
Two days after the quake hit the Kobe-Osaka area early Tuesday, food was still scarce.
Nishinomiya, with a population of 430,000, lies between the bigger cities. Officials confirmed 500 deaths with 100 people missing in Nishinomiya. More than 850 homes were destroyed.
Brennan and Spokane teachers Marilyn Reiman, Joan Frank and Stephanie Molett-Armijo work in Nishinomiya through Washington State University and Spokane School District 81 exchange programs. Two other Spokane teachers are in the same program.
The four teachers, who live in the same apartment building, counted their blessings Wednesday as they watched the homeless Japanese families around them.
“All of these treasures that we had been saving were smashed into smithereens,” Brennen said. But her treasures were mostly dishes and knickknacks. The people and things she values most are in Spokane.
“It occurred to me that as hard as picking that up was, this is only my temporary stuff.”
“My husband and house (in Spokane) are still intact,” Brennan said.
“We have a home that withstood the earthquake,” said Reiman. “We have food and moral support.”
Although the apartments have electricity, they lost phone service Tuesday and water on Wednesday.
Reiman used to see a two-story building outside her second-story apartment window. But the second floor of that building now sits where the first story used to be.
Brennan and Reiman said they were surprised at how quickly residents regained a semblance of order Tuesday. Just hours after the quake, workers who came to the foreign teachers’ office building were dressed neatly. Businessmen in suits filled the commuter trains, carrying on with their business using cellular phones.
Brennan and Reiman rode around on their bicycles Tuesday, surveying the damage.
They decided that their apartment building would be better than a temporary shelter set up at the Nishinomiya public sports center, where more than 700 people were taking refuge.
Sanitary conditions in the sports center were deplorable. The Japanese-style public toilets - ceramic holes in the ground - were overflowing with waste. The upper level of the shelter was being used as a morgue.
Frank and Molett-Armijo opted for the shelter despite the cramped quarters there.
After trying to catch some sleep in between aftershocks Tuesday night, Reiman and Brennan got started on the lengthy task of cleaning their apartments.
All the teachers described the earthquake as a terrifying, noisy rumble. “It felt like a train was coming toward me,” Reiman said.
Brennan said the earth’s movement threw her up and down on her futon. She could see the shadows of her possessions being thrown about her apartment.
Although they’ve been in Japan since the start of the school year, Reiman and Brennan said it was difficult to understand what was happening around them. They understand some Japanese, but the written language is hard for an American to grasp even under the best of circumstances.
“They would flash Kanji (Chinese characters) all over the TV screen,” Brennan said. “We didn’t know what it meant.”
They also don’t know what they’ll do next, a quandary they share with many of the Japanese people.
Although school already has resumed in Osaka, no decisions have been made in Nishinomiya. Even when school resumes, the Spokane teachers wonder whether the classes they teach will be continued. Compared with the expense of rebuilding the city, English classes may be considered an unaffordable luxury.
Reiman said she had been debating whether to return to Japan for a second school year. She told Brennan that she was waiting for some sort of sign.
“I got the sign,” she said, laughing.
But there are more immediate concerns. Aftershocks remain a threat.
Brennan and Reiman have trained themselves to get out of bed and to the doorway at the slightest hint of a tremor.
Brennan, who lived through two major U.S. disasters - Hurricane Camille in Mississippi and the Mount St. Helens eruption - said an earthquake is worse.
“This is much more draining and traumatic,” she said. “We know what could lie ahead.”