Yamabayashi Hisato, 46, security guard, Kobe-shi Tarumi-ku
Gong! Thud! Clank!
The earth was rumbling and huge noises filled the air. The violent quake threw me off my balance, and I was on all four. I looked around me intently.
I worked in the security department of Mitsumiya Hankyu Departmental Store. On the morning of that unfortunate day, my chief and I woke up at 5 am to do our routine patrol in and out of the store. At 5.30 am, we had already went through the food section located at B1, and were taking the staircase of the dance floor which led to the first floor. The Hanshin Earthquake struck when we had come out of the ladies’ section.
“Are you all right?” I heard my chief’s confused voice.
Though covered by the ladies’ and other displayed items, I was unhurt. The chief only bumped himself against the surrounding and seemed as lively as usual. But I had a gut feeling that this earthquake would not end just at that.
Judging from the surrounding, we gathered we would not be able come out to
the main road through the first floor. So we tried to go back to the security
room through the food section in the basement. We were shocked by what we saw.
Under the red emergency light, the whole scene looked a total mess. The chief called out loud in spite of himself.
There were cracks everywhere from the ceilings to the walls. The walls had collapsed. The joints of the sprinkler pipes were broken and water was gushing out like waterfalls. The displayed items were scattered in all directions. The fish were thrown out of the fish tank and springing on the floor. It was all hell broke loose.
We tried to run out of the building to avoid being caught in major
aftershocks. The door to the security room was warped and could not open. We
pried open it to access the north staircase, which was meant for delivery, and
heaved a sigh of relief when we finally came out of the building. It was 12 or
13 minutes after the earthquake.
It was surprisingly quiet outside. The surrounding was still dim and the streetlights were not on due to the power failure. We made use of our flashlights and made our way to the Ikuda Shrine in the west. Gradually, we began to see people moving about and hear noises. There were even two cars with their headlamps on.
At a store below the overhead railroad of the Hankyu and JR train, two or three persons were chatting.
“I heard there were casualties.”
“It smells of gas here. There must be a gas leak somewhere!”
“It‘s terrible over there!”
“According to the radio news, Awajishima was the epicenter and it was 6.”
When we emerged from the narrow and dimly-lighted path to the main road
and got closer to the Ikuda Shrine, we could see more people hanging around
with uneasiness. Some were in whatever clothes they were in at the time of
quake. Others were barefooted. Siren sounded at some distance where fires
seemed to have broken out. The sky was reddened and the atmosphere was chaotic.
The chief and I left the Ikuda Shrine, whose big stone gateposts had collapsed, and returned to the departmental store. At this point, even though we knew it was a major earthquake, we were unable to tell its magnitude.
When we came to the exit where we made our escape, it was almost daybreak.
Now that it was more visible, we were shocked by what we saw at the scene.
The west wall of the building through which we had existed was still there, but the north part of the east walls had collapsed, fallen and blocked the road. At some parts, the rubble was as high as five meters. The east wall was split vertically from the rooftop of the cinema at the fifth floor. An entire wall of about 20 meters on the west side had tumbled down. The bus stop and taxi stand were covered under the rubble. Huge piles of rubble blocked the road to the shops on the opposite side.
We pried open the door to our security room. The chief and I muttered to ourselves that we were lucky to have the other party for mutual support during the quake. We divided a French roll found in the room between us as breakfast.
The telephone was not working. Public phones were all right but there were long queues...
The display windows facing the east were broken. So we had to move the goods inside the store and locked the important rooms. As our store was “Mitsumiya Hankyu Departmental Store, operating even in time of war”, a few part-timers and employees still came to work, which actually added to the confusion.
Around 12 noon, a young lady’s body was found when we patrolled within the store. It seemed that she had returned from skiing by train and was hard hit by the falling rubble when she tried to make her way to the taxi stand. We could not spot her from outside the store because of the huge piles of rubble, but she was visible from the inside. She lay still with her skiwear. Later, an acquaintance saw her season ticket and told me that she was 23.
Had the earthquake occurred 10 minutes later, the chief and I would have
been buried alive under the rubble because this point was where we routinely
patrolled. I could not help but put my hands together in silent prayer.
A few days later, demolition began, and three more bodies were found under
the rubber at the north side of the departmental store. The workers stopped whatever
they were doing and offered their prayer in silence when each of the bodies was
found until they were wrapped in the vinyl sheets.
Mitsumiya Hankyu Departmental Store was demolished, and its employees were transferred to other outlets.