John and his brother had survived the initial quake, but they still had to climb down from the unstable annex before it collapsed under its own weight. The buildings around them had been sheared away like God gave the Earth a buzz cut, leaving a fairly direct (if utterly terrifying) path down to the street below. The dirt left behind was extremely soft, like it had been churned. John sank to his ankles with every step. This kind of powdery soil is not uncommon after an earthquake. It's known as liquefaction, and it involves the top layer of earth blending with the groundwater during a strong tremor. The muddy concoction that results can feel like quicksand.
Japan National Committee on Earthquake Engineering
It is the diarrhea of Tor, the epileptic earth god.
An aftershock could have come at any moment, sending a two-story building right over like the worst possible game of Red Rover.
When they hit the street, the dust storm kicked up by all that debris led to confusion. "We couldn't see anything for like the first four minutes," John says. "We couldn't see the horizon, to see what was happening. I'd look up, and I couldn't see the sky." Eventually the brothers managed to make out two more people nearby: a housekeeper from the hotel and a photojournalist from Belgium (the one who took all the pictures). "When the dust cleared out," John recalls, "the whole city started to scream. And I mean everyone."
Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Tragedy breeds unity.