An Eyewitness Account Of The Earthquake

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American Marty Kuehnert has lived in Japan for more than 30 years — he's the first foreign general manager of a Japanese professional baseball team. Kuehnert and his family live in the northern city of Sendai — about 60 miles south of the failed nuclear reactors in Fukushima. This week, out of concern for their safety, the Kuehnerts made a 15-hour drive to Kyoto.


To Japan now where emergency teams say they're making progress in their efforts to restore the power of the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Late yesterday, we got a first-hand account of some of the conditions in Japan from Marty Kuehnert, an American who's lived in Japan for over 30 years. He has the distinction of being the first foreign general manager of a Japanese professional baseball team, the Golden Eagles.

Mr. Kuehnert was at home in the northern city of Sendai when the earthquake hit, and he along with his wife and young daughter were unharmed.

He joins us on the phone from Kyoto. Mr. Kuehnert, thanks for being with us.

Mr. MARTY KUEHNERT (General Manager, Golden Eagles): Yes, Scott. It's my pleasure.

SIMON: I gather you chose to leave Sendai, right?

Mr. KUEHNERT: Yeah, we spent two days with no power, no - you know, no electricity, no water. I've had experience with earthquakes, the Kobe earthquake, and so I was well-prepared compared to a lot of people. But, you know, we were the lucky ones. You know, were on the west side of town, inland.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KUEHNERT: And the people on the east side of the station, out by the ocean, are the ones that got hit by the tsunami. And, you know, there was huge damage because of the quake an even bigger damage because of the tsunami. We were not in that area. We were very fortunate ones.

But nevertheless, we decided to get out. I made the decision because of the problem with the nuclear reactor in Fukushima.

SIMON: What was the drive like to Kyoto?

Mr. KUEHNERT: Well, we couldn't take the normal route. So it was a 15-and-a-half hour drive. And it was amazing in leaving Miyagi Prefecture. You saw these huge lines right away at gasoline stations. Well, first of all, most of them are closed. But the ones that were open had lines that in some cases the line of cars was a mile long, awaiting to get in. And sometimes people would line up all night, waiting for them to open the next day so they could get a little gas - and then it's rationed.

And in front of this huge supermarkets that we saw open there were long lines. Most were not open, and if they were open there were long lines. And, again, people were limited to say buying ten items. And that was very noticeable all the way through Miyagi Prefecture.

But I have a hybrid Toyota van and it gets great gas mileage. So I had enough gas to get all the way through Miyagi Prefecture, you know, Yamagata Prefecture into Niigata. And when we finally - after about six hours we got to the point where we could buy gas without a long wait.

SIMON: Help us understand the fear of radiation that drove you to leave town and...

Mr. KUEHNERT: It was probably the second day before we realized there was a problem down there. And then, you know, I said, boy that doesn't sound good. And then it seemed that the news started coming out on a very slow basis that this was a bigger problem than we had been led on or we'd been led to believe in the beginning.

And then it started to snowball from there. And I just felt if I'm going to err, err on the side of caution. Get away. And, you know, my own intention is not to go back to Sendai until, you know, there's no problem any longer in Fukushima.

But I have to say that I've seen so much of the Japanese character, the positive side, you know. When I mentioned those lines, people are waiting so patiently in those lines and in order to get the food, to get the gasoline. There's, you know, we've seen natural disasters in other countries where people riot afterwards because they can't get stuff.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KUEHNERT: There's been none of that. Zero.

SIMON: Yeah. Forgive me, Marty, it's going to sound like a frivolous question, but it's not really. When does the season open?

Mr. KUEHNERT: Ha. Well, it was supposed to open for us on the 25th. And our stadium has been damaged enough that it's probably going to need, you know, a month or a month-and-a-half of repairs. And that's when we can get construction crews there to start those repairs.

And, you know, those construction crews can't be working on a baseball stadium when they're trying to pull people out of, you know, rubble or build roads now to get to areas where some people are still stranded. And they haven't been reached a week later.

So, anyhow, the Pacific League has postponed the opening until April 12th at the earliest. It could be pushed back again. But we're not going to use our home stadium. We'll probably be using the stadium in Kobe and playing out of there.

SIMON: You're in touch with folks who are still in Sendai in the north?

Mr. KUEHNERT: Oh, yeah. I've been in touch with a lot of people, but I'm still concerned there's some friends that I have there - some students, some teachers that I work with - have not be able to reach. And, you know, the unfortunate thing is that the death tolls that you're seeing is going to go up, because there's a lot of people still in the missing category.

SIMON: It sounds like in the midst of all this devastation you were reminded over the past week what you admire about so many people there.

Mr. KUEHNERT: Oh, yeah. I mean, they're good folks, you know, and they're resilient. And they are hardworking and they are good folks. And they are trying to take care of each other and they're trying to get through this.

And I almost feel guilty, Scott, you know, having left the scene, you know, and got down here to Kyoto. But I felt I had, you know, with radiation, you don't want children in radiation. You don't want...

SIMON: You've got a little girl. Yeah.

Mr. KUEHNERT: Yeah, she's only seven and a half. So it was important to get them out. And I'm just so thankful that we were in the situation that we were. I mean, we're the lucky ones. We were the lucky ones.

SIMON: Marty Kuehnert, who's American and general manager of the Golden Eagles Japanese professional baseball team, speaking with us from Kyoto.

Thanks so much, Marty.

Mr. KUEHNERT: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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