By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN If Tim Diem’s connecting flight in Tokyo, Japan had taken off a half hour sooner March 11, he would have missed the earthquake entirely.
He’d have been home from his Singapore trip a lot sooner, and he wouldn’t have been forced to sit through multiple aftershocks . . . but then again, how often does a guy from Delano get to feel the earth move under his feet?
“The trip was interesting enough the way it was. This is definitely one I won’t forget,” said Diem, who had been a guest conductor at an annual music festival in China that week.
On his way home, Diem stopped in Japan to catch a connecting flight.
“There were about 20 of us still waiting to get on the plane,” he recalled. “One of the guys near the line said, ‘did you feel that? It felt like the earth was moving.’”
Diem hadn’t noticed anything at that time, but soon, the rumbling was unquestionable.
“It started to feel like you were on a ship on heavy seas,” he said. “That’s when it dawned on me that this is probably what an earthquake feels like.”
This was Diem’s first “real” earthquake, he said, explaining that he had been in a quake in Minnesota several years ago, but it was so weak he could barely feel it.
“I thought it was a big truck going by,” he said.
This time, though, the tremor was substantially stronger.
Particles were shaking loose from the light fixtures, and ceiling tiles were cracking off.
Aftershocks on a plane
After it stopped, there were two or three aftershocks while Diem was still standing in the airport.
“They told us that it was safer to be on the plane than in the airport,” Diem said.
So, everyone who was left in line boarded the plane, and officials cleared out the entire airport building. Diem was one of about 2,000 travelers who sat waiting in five idle planes until further notice.
By that time, Internet and cell coverage had gone down, and it was raining heavily outside.
“We were just sitting there, watching movies, feeling aftershocks,” Diem said. Aftershocks on the plane felt a little like being on a roller coaster, he added.
After awhile, the pilot came in and gave them a situation update, saying that an 8.9 magnitude offshore quake had occurred about 250 miles northeast of Tokyo, triggering a tsunami.
At that time, Diem said he didn’t have a good grasp of how devastating an 8.9 quake could be.
“I didn’t really understand how bad it was until I got back to Minnesota and saw the pictures and news coverage,” he said, explaining that since there was no outside communication, passengers only knew what the pilot was telling them.
Everyone on the plane seemed to have a calm attitude about the delay, even after waiting on the plane for about six hours.
“There were no angry words,” he said. “Everyone was just making do. People were chatting and walking up and down the aisles.”
No one had any idea how long they would be stranded there, because no flights were going out.
“They [airport officials] just kept saying that they didn’t know what to do with us,” Diem said.
Initially, everyone thought they’d be spending the night at the Tokyo airport.
However, after realizing that there was no food available and no suitable place for 2,000 foreigners to stay, officials decided to let the five planes take off.
“I didn’t ask questions after that,” Diem said.
The next 10-11 hours were spent in the air, heading back to Minnesota.
Diem’s wife hadn’t been aware that Diem’s connecting flight had been delayed in Tokyo until after she got to the Minneapolis airport to pick him up.
While she waited for his flight to come in, she did some shopping at the Mall of America.
Back on solid ground
Diem was surprised to see several news crews when he arrived at the airport, and he ended up being interviewed by Fox 9 News.
Later on, Diem realized from Facebook that he wasn’t the only Delano High School graduate in the quake. A former classmate had also been on his flight, traveling home from Beijing.
“What are the odds that there would be two Delano High School graduates there that haven’t seen each other in 20 years?” Diem wondered.
Despite the “eventful” journey home, Diem said his trip to Singapore was excellent, and he hopes to do it again in the future.
“I might find a different connecting flight, though,” he laughed.