“You can’t stand up. Even sitting down is hard. I had to hold the table to keep my balance and not fall over,” Armbrister added.
The earthquake, an 8.9-magnitude disaster that sent a massive tsunami storming onto the mainland and across the Pacific Ocean, triggered a deadly combination of earth, fire, water and nuclear radiation that fueled a still-rising death toll, now expected to be in the tens of thousands.
All four UNC students studying in Japan are living in areas far enough south not to have their safety seriously threatened, said Kathryn Goforth, acting director of the study abroad office.
Goforth said the primary responsibility of the study abroad office is to make sure the students are safe. After that, the office would only act if the U.S. State Department issued an alert that required evacuation or if any of the students wished to leave. Both students interviewed said they do not plan on leaving.
But they have witnessed the destruction firsthand.
Two hours after the earthquake, Armbrister heard a massive explosion. Part of a nearby oil refinery had exploded.
“For a moment, the sky was completely orange,” he said.
Fueled by adrenaline, he said, Armbrister ran for 30 minutes to the erupting refinery with a running video camera. He even spoke to a worker who was leaving the site.
“He told me that at least six barrels blew up,” he said. “He told me the heat was unbearable and the employees were worried about losing their jobs because of the incident.”
Armbrister e-mailed his video to CNN, which then interviewed him over Skype, he said.
Melissa Tolentino, a sophomore studying Japanese in Nagoya who lived in Japan for part of her childhood, could only feel the aftershocks but said they were powerful.
“That was the longest and scariest earthquake of my life,” she said.
“At first it just felt like you had vertigo,” she added. “But it started picking up momentum and that lasted for about a minute.”
One of the students declined comment, citing the still “dire” nature of the situation. The final student could not be reached for comment.
The tsunami wiped out entire towns in northern Japan but the damage could have been far worse if Japan hadn’t been so well-prepared for earthquakes, said Bill Gentry, director of community preparedness and disaster management in the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
“That’s why you’re seeing hundreds of deaths and not hundreds of thousands of deaths,” he said, citing last year’s earthquake in Haiti and the damage it incurred because of its unprepared public.
Gentry added that the concern of the disaster preparedness community is now on the troubled nuclear power plants facing malfunction, but added that they are some of the safest in the world.
“We do not have that many nuclear facility events in the world so when there is one everyone wants to learn from it,” he said.
Tolentino said she felt a sense of detachment, close enough to experience the disaster but far enough away to not be affected by it.
“You can’t escape it,” she said. “It’s weird that we’re going about as normal when all that’s happening up there.”
“People think Japan is very small but it’s not. It’s still a big country,” she added.
Tiffany Yonts, a sophomore who left her studies in Japan a month and a half ago, said the severity of the disaster was apparent for someone with distant ties to the nation.
“One of my friend’s girlfriend’s hometown is completely gone,” she said. “It’s really scary.”
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