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Columbus Native Erin McDaniel Was Visiting Japan During Earthquake

Kelly (Ervin) Neidig, left, and Erin McDaniel tour Japan only days before a catastrophic earthquake/tsunami rocks the country.

Columbus native Erin McDaniel had never been overseas. She had lived in Columbus all her life when she moved to San Antonio, Texas, last summer to take a job at a sign company there. Her lifelong schoolmate and friend, Kelly (Ervin) Neidig had moved to Japan nearly two and a half years ago after her husband (Adrian) was deployed there in the air force. Kelly came back to visit Erin about a year ago and the two made a trip to New Orleans. Several months back, Erin made plans to visit Kelly in Japan around the first week in March of this year.

A couple of weeks ago, an excited Erin boarded a plane in Houston to fly to Japan. Kelly and Erin had nearly a week of enjoyment exploring Japan before a catastrophic event happened that will affect millions for years to come. The now-historic earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan hit about three days before Erin was scheduled to fly back to the U.S. (she was scheduled to fly back this past Monday, March 14th).

Erin’s mom and dad (Kenneth and Phyllis McDaniel of Columbus) had to be worried about their daughter…as were her many friends and family members. Her Facebook wall lit up with well-wishers worried about her. To make matters worse for Erin and Kelly, the two had to face the crisis by themselves as Kelly’s husband, Adrian, was serving in Iraq. The following is Erin’s own account of the events as they unfolded in Japan last week:

“We had the earthquake, which kinda just made me feel dizzy at first. Then I realized what was going on and it just got progressively worse, what with shaking TVs and floor plants, so we ran outside. It was just a back and forth, and you knew it was rough. We were standing outside and this light pole was my reference point. It was just rocking back and forth and I just knew it was going to fall over but it didn’t. I honestly can’t remember if there was a rumbling or not. We all went back inside and we were sitting around and of course the news is on and showing clips from the newsroom, which was INSANE. Then I swear it wasn’t two minutes later someone said the word ‘tsunami’, which cued a ‘beg your pardon?’ response. Kelly was getting her hair done so I walked down to the salon and I was like “Dude…” and before I could even tell her what the people down the hall were talking about we were already watching waves washing into Tokyo on the TV in the salon. Right after that came the first aftershock, which was almost as bad as the earthquake. We called our parents to let them know what was up before they woke up in the morning wondering what was going on. It was like 12 a.m. for you guys. It probably took us 20 minutes to get home and it was already all over the news, and the tsunami was washing cars and buildings away. These people had NO TIME to get away. The news kept saying ‘Tokyo this’ and ‘Tokyo that”’, but Tokyo wasn’t really damaged. Right after the earthquake there were a few buildings on the news that were on fire, but I don’t think it was substantial damage. It was mainly towards the north.

Erin snapped a photo of Kelly inside Tokyo Disneyland. This is just a day before the massive earthquake struck Japan.

“So then once you get past the initial earthquake, you are still glued to the news, and you have to watch the American news because you can’t understand the Japanese. And you have to hope it’s accurate because that’s the only news you are getting. There were something like 200 aftershocks. I felt one on Saturday night, and one woke me up early Sunday morning.

“Then comes the nuclear meltdown crisis, which basically kept me awake, in a light sleep at best, for 72 hours. I heard sirens in the middle of the night and I had no idea what they meant, PA announcements in Japanese that I didn’t understand. You don’t know what to do or where to go. There’s no way to get away from that kind of thing.

“I checked with the airline, checked with the buses that run from Yokota to the Narita airport to make sure everything was on time. They said it was, and come Monday when I’m supposed to leave, the guy tells us in broken English that he can’t guarantee we’ll be there in the expected 2.5 hours. On Saturday apparently it took a bus 12 hours to get there. I was about to lose my mind. That really made me realize I had no control over getting out of that place. I knew everyone was in the same boat I was and that everyone wanted to get out just like I did, but somehow that was not very comforting and I don’t care how selfish that sounds. It was like being in a bad dream, where you have no control over what’s going on and you’re suddenly at the mercy of something greater than you…or your bus driver. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t shed a tear when I was on the bus because I was about to lose it if I missed my flight out. I have no idea when I would have gotten another one.

“I was a really big baby about the situation and I don’t care who knows it. Kelly was being really brave and strong the whole time, but as the situation began to deteriorate, she too seemed to feel the stress. I desperately wish she could have come home with me. I still wish she was coming home now.

“So while we were on the bus, everyone was kind of telling their stories about the how’s and where’s of when the earthquake hit. One guy was at the airport to leave and had to spend the night in the airport. He was traveling with a woman who proudly held up her sleeping bag that I’m sure everyone saw on the news. He was saying everyone was moved to the first floor, which was freezing. I can vouch that Japan isn’t the warmest right now. It snowed the first two days I was there and it was chilly when I left. It was always pretty chilly at night. He said people were trying to get cardboard boxes just to put anything between them and the floor because it was so cold. He was one of those people who ended up being on a long bus ride and vouched it really did happen and that it really did, for lack of a better word, suck. He was on my bus Monday, and just hoping to make his flight. He was a lot more accepting of the fact we may not make it than I was.

“Another lady said they were in the aftermath trying to get home by train and I know you saw the news were there were hundreds of people in line that night to get home. She said the train was packed beyond belief and the people that couldn’t get on were shaking the train from the outside.

“There was a run on gas as there is in any major crisis anywhere and tons of stations were out that we passed on the way to the airport.

“It was reported that the base we were on at the time felt a 5.0 earthquake. Since then some of the aftershocks have been scaled up to a 6. I have never felt anything like that before; I’ll take my chances with hurricanes and tornadoes. At least you have a chance to hide from that. And if what I felt was a 5.0, I cannot fathom a 9. I cannot imagine how those people farther north felt.

“I wanted to get some pictures of Tokyo by the bay if there was anything to take a picture of on the way back to the airport, but we were unable to take the same route. When I came in we drove by Tokyo Disney, but the guy who explained the time for travel for the bus also said we would have to take a different way because the highway by Disneyland was structurally unsound.

“I was very fortunate to leave on time as scheduled and as soon as I did. And thank you so much to everyone back home who was praying for me. I love and thank each and every one of you for it. I worry about everyone that is still there, but I especially worry about my friend, Kelly Neidig (Ervin), who is to some degree stuck right now. Her husband, Adrian, is currently deployed to Iraq and she’s alone now since I’m gone. I wish she was back here in the States, as I’m sure anyone who has a loved one in Japan right now does. I ask that you please keep her in mind. Last I heard there were now trace amounts of radiation in the area (no more than you would get in a x-ray) but there wasn’t even that much when I left on Monday, in fact the base was reporting there was none when I left on Monday. It’s just an indication that the situation has gotten worse. And best I can tell Yokota is roughly 150 – 170 miles from Fukushima (nuclear plant) so that’s the distance you are working with. I also heard this morning in fact that there was another large aftershock that was the strongest one she’s felt.”

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