Sheer panic gives way to relief as bullet train pulls in
THEY had been evacuated once already, pushed from pillar to post and told that everything was fine. Now the truth was out, and they were fleeing, in their thousands.
The railway station at Nasushiobara, the last one still operating near Japan's nuclear crisis area, was jammed with frightened people.
In this ghost town of closed shops and offices, pedestrian-free pavements, and empty petrol pumps, the station was the only place still alive, and the only escape route most had left.
The Tokyo highway a mile to the west was busy, too -- but you needed a lot of petrol to get to Tokyo. At the only garage which still had it, there was a five-hour queue. With radiation now leaking from the stricken plant just down the road, there might not be five hours to spare.
From the town and the whole surrounding region, on foot, by bicycle and using the last fuel in their tanks, the people came to the railway station, a stream becoming a flood as word spread of just how serious the danger was.
"I couldn't sleep and I was watching TV," said Noriyuki Fukada, an English teacher. "Then it was announced that there would be a government statement at 6.30am. I thought, if the government announces something at 6.30am, it cannot be good."
It wasn't. Radioactive fuel rods in one of the stricken Fukushima nuclear reactors, the official spokesman admitted, were now "fully exposed", at risk of meltdown, and radiation had escaped into the atmosphere. Ninety per cent of the plant's own staff were evacuated, leaving only a skeleton team fighting off catastrophe. Most serious of all, an explosion the previous day -- the plant's third -- might have damaged a reactor containment vessel, the last barrier between the reactors' cores and the outside world.
A few hours later Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, appeared on television. "Now we are talking about levels (of leakage) that can impact human health.
"I would like all of you to embrace this information calmly," he said. But the beads of sweat were clearly visible on his own brow.
By that point, however, I, and a good part of the population of the district around Koriyama, the major town closest to the stricken plant, were getting out. Mr Edano was telling us to stay indoors and keep our windows closed. But old habits of deference to authority were breaking down. Many were taking matters into their own hands.
Koriyama's own station has been closed for days, but the word was that there were still a few trains, for the moment, at Nasushiobara, 25 miles away.
In another humbling example of Japanese kindness and hospitality, the family I stayed with on Monday night decided to use some of their precious petrol to drive me there -- and would accept no payment.
Arriving at the station, it was a vast relief to see the long, white snout of a bullet train.
Japan's reputation in nuclear matters might have taken a battering, but at least they can lay on a fast getaway vehicle.
Inside the booking hall, there was Japanese-style panic -- whose symptoms are not the same as those of Western-style panic. Even without the shouting and fighting, people were clearly under great strain. Many had flared nostrils and terrified eyes.
A quarrel broke out in the ticket queue when one man tried to pay by credit card, holding everybody up. But there still was a ticket queue, and a queue to board, even though it was about half a mile long.
The train left without a single inch of spare standing space in any doorway or aisle.
As we charged away from the reactor at 110mph, the atmosphere became noticeably lighter, and I felt my own spirits lifting. But with the wind blowing towards Tokyo, and higher radiation levels already present in the city, the feeling of deliverance may well be an illusory one.
Mr Fukada, the English teacher, said: "People are fed up with being told what to do and treated like fools. The problem with radiation is that you cannot know anything -- you depend on the government for the information to save your life. Now we are acting for ourselves, but the worry is that we left it too late."
Perhaps we did. But the train, at least, arrived precisely on time. (© Daily Telegraph, London)