By Starrla Cray
DASSEL, COKATO, MN When 1999 Dassel-Cokato High School graduate Erick Latt sensed the ground quivering beneath his feet March 11, he didn’t know what to think.
“It was pretty crazy, no doubt about it,” said Latt, who had been working in Japan for the past few months. “Everything was shaking so hard.”
Latt’s first trip to Japan was April 2009. He had experienced a few smaller earthquakes during his stays, but nothing like the one that rocked the country a few weeks ago.
“Usually they were just little tremors. It feels like you’re rocking in a boat,” he said. “This one was different. People were on their hands and knees.”
The massive seismic activity that triggered a devastating tsunami was preceded by a few lesser quakes earlier in the week.
The morning of March 9, an earthquake with a magnitude of more than 7 shook the Japanese east coast, followed by a series of smaller aftershocks.
The 8.9-magnitude quake March 11 occurred while Latt was at work at the Proto Labs plant in a suburb near Tokyo.
“The people in Japan feel them all the time, and they were even freaked out,” Latt said. “Most of the people said they had never felt anything like it.”
When the quake first hit, Latt and the other Proto Labs employees stopped what they were doing and waited to see if the earthquake would let up.
After a few minutes, 50-pound blocks of aluminum were falling off shelves, and the shaking didn’t show signs of stopping.
“At first, people were just looking around. Then, we went outside to see what was going on,” Latt said.
Nearby, a tire business was having trouble keeping its merchandise from leaving.
“The tires were rolling all over the road,” Latt said. “Also, the power lines looked like jump ropes. They were swinging all over the place.”
Some Proto Labs employees had been at a trade show in Tokyo during the quake and were unable to get home that night.
“A couple of them slept in a city hall or a closed night club,” Latt said. “Buses and trains were cancelled.”
Even after the initial trembling subsided, that wasn’t the end of it for Latt.
“Afterward, four to five times a day you’d feel something,” he said. “When I got home, I still felt like I was shaking.”
A chaotic ride home
Latt, a resident of Delano, flew home a week after the earthquake because of Japan’s nuclear situation.
“I didn’t want to deal with the radiation,” he said.
Just getting to the airport was an ordeal, however.
Usually, Latt would have a less than 15-minute wait for a bus, but instead it took 2.5 hours.
“There were a lot of people trying to leave,” he said.
According to an article in USA Today, an estimated 160,000 Americans were in Japan at the time of the March 11 earthquake.
When Latt eventually made it to the airport, the lines were incredibly long.
“It took me four minutes to walk to the end of the line, and I was walking fast,” he said. “The airport was crazy. I didn’t think I was going to make my flight.”
The plane ended up taking an alternate route in order to avoid the possibility of radiation, Latt said.
“I have a ticket to go back to Japan April 16, but we’ll see what happens with the radiation,” he added.
The Proto Labs plant is currently closed as a precaution, and scheduled power blackouts are also delaying work.
“Everybody else is kind of in gridlock, too,” Latt said.
Latt has been helping with research and development at Proto Labs (based in Maple Plain) since he graduated from Alexandria Technical College. The company, which is the world’s fastest supplier of CNC machined and injection-molded parts, began in 1999.
“I think I was employee number 10,” Latt said, adding that the company has grown substantially since that time.
Latt assisted with the creation of an additional plant in England in 2005, and is now helping to establish one in Japan that opened in 2009.