Cameraman based in Edinburgh, employed by ITN, working for ITV's Good Morning Britain covering stories all over the UK and the world. War Zones, World Cups, Royal Tours and many other less exciting assignments, like interviewing current and ex Prime Ministers have kept me busy over the years working in Breakfast Television since GMTV came on the scene back in '93 and regional TV before that. In 2009 I began to record what it is like to work, the often strange and long hours needed to bring the hard news, human interest and fluffy fun to the UK's TV screens in the morning, mostly broadcasting live.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Scrambled to Japan's biggest earthquake

Friday 11th

The stream of tweets on my Twitter feed told me that there had been a huge earthquake in Japan and that the whole Pacific Rim was on a high alert for a tsunami.

From the coast of asia to Chile emergency plans were being put into action.

A few hours later the call that I expected came. I was going to be on my way to Japan.

The story of devastation was incredible, already it was clear that this had been one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded.

I had time to pack as much of my kit as possible. I did not want to take too much but, had to cover the possibility of working in pretty bad conditions,

As I packed I watched a combination of Sky News and CNN. The gravity of the situation was getting bigger by the moment as the scale of the damage and number of casualties rose.

The other thing that was becoming a worry was the damage to a nuclear plant.

I got to my flight from Edinburgh to Heathrow Terminal 1 to meet a driver who would give me a bag containing my satellite kit and a little camera.

He would then take me to Terminal 4 to meet Daybreak correspondents Cordelia Kretzchmar and Richard Gaisford.

I was in plenty of time for the planned flight to Osaka via Seoul.

Narita, Tokyo’s main international airport was closed because of the earthquake

I went straight to Customs and quickly and efficiently got my carnet sorted out.

Then just before I was about to check in the fun started. If what I did for the next few moments had been filmed the perfect sound track would have been the Benny Hill theme music.

I got a call to say that there was a direct flight to Tokyo on ANA airlines from Terminal 4 and that Narita was probably going to be open by the time it landed.

The only thing was that if we were to get on the flight we needed to get to check in within ten minutes.

It would not be easy but, possible for me to get there from Terminal 4.

The quickest way would be by the Heathrow Express so I scurried with my trolley towards the lifts.

Twice the lift arrived but before anyone could get in the doors closed and off it went.

I managed to get in on the next downwards trip.

There was a train waiting at the platform.

The difficulty that I would have would be getting my four bags from the trolley to the train before it left the station.

I cursed as my phone rang. I thought about letting it ring out and getting on with the job.

However. I was glad that I did answer.

Almost before I had uttered a word Chris from Daybreak said, “stay where you are. Don’t go to Terminal 3. There is a flight to Tokyo via Paris from Terminal 4.

I slowly made my way back up to the check in area and met up with Richard and Cordelia.

We checked in for the flight and started the excess baggage negotiations.

Unlike my BMI flight from Edinburgh and because there were three of us to spread the weight over and the tripod passing off as a combination ski poles and golf clubs the cost was very reasonable indeed.

The excess charge to Tokyo was less that half of what I had paid from Edinburgh to London.

We were quite pleased when we saw on our confirmation e-mails that on the leg to Paris we would be travelling premium but less pleased that on the long portion we would be right up the back.

In the event it made no difference because once the excess baggage had been dealt with there was no time to luxuriate in the lounge and when we got onboard there was no difference in the seating and we were not sitting together.

I was settling myself down in my window seat when I heard the jolly loud voices of a group of young men in stripped shirts walking up the aisle.

At my row they had great fun putting there expensive bags in the already packed overhead locker.

My camera caused them some mild amusement nestling at the back of one of the lockers.

The team of nice but dim Tims. two of which were twins took up the rest of the seats in my row.

They kept me amused for the short flight with their witty “banter” but, not quite so with some of the rather stupid questions one of them asked once they had discovered that I was the owner of the expensive camera.

We got to Paris and bade good bye to the hoorays. Fair play to them though. they were off to Argentina to help out at a school.

There was not much time until we got on to the long flight to Tokyo.

I was a little bit excited. Under other circumstances would have been very excited.

I was going to have my first trip on one of the new double decker Airbus A 380s.

The big beast at the air pier.

It was a nice shiny new aeroplane but the much publicised comfort and space was certainly not evident from our little seats in the back.

So, I was not impressed. Maybe the folk that had the fortune of being up stairs or turning left when they got on might have a different opinion.

At least we were not the only crews in the cheap seats there were a few cameras being put in the overhead bins.

Despite the cramped seat and my desire not to sleep I did have a few short naps.

...and the camera on the tail gave a good landing view going in to Narita.

Immigration and Customs at Narita were as polite and efficient as I expected. We were processed and through very quickly with the minimum of fuss.

As soon as we exited the customs hall there was evidence that things had not been normal.

There were sleeping bags and blankets on the floor. A worker was busy picking them up and putting them in a supermarket style wheeled cage.

It was apparent that these cages were ready to be wheeled out in just sort of occasions.

Where some folk had been sleeping.

German TV crew getting kit organised and the guy packs away the blankets and sleeping bags.

I don't think that any UK airports are that organised.

We went to get some local mobile phones and internet access.

A lot of the shops had closed for the night so we could not get all we needed.

So we got on the bus to our hotel near the airport to get some food and sleep.

I had not wanted to sleep on the flight so that I would have a better night’s sleep.

I would have had been able to do it had it not been for a text from Vodafone at 3 am to tell me that I was using data.

In away that did me a favour because it meant that when the shaking caused by one of the many aftershock tremors started I was already awake.

Over breakfast Japanese style, rice, miso and fruit along with traditional toast we discussed our options for getting to the earthquake area.

It was not going to be easy because the fast and reliable bullet train, Shinkansen as it is known in Japan, was not running.

The coastal road was not passable and the nearest airports were either closed or no flights were heading there.

We needed a car, a driver and a translator.

We were not able to hire or drive cars in Japan because we did not have the relevant licence.

None of these things were as easy to come by as it would be reasonable to expect in one of the world’s largest and most advanced cosmopolitan cities.

There were a lot of calls and frustrations throughout the morning and into the afternoon.

There was no one in London that could help because the office was unmanned being the middle of Saturday night there.

Phone calls to various colleagues in other organisations bigger and more well resourced than we were told us that they were having similar problems.

Whilst Richard and Cordelia were dealing with these logistical difficulties I was sorting out the kit doing a bit of rationalisation so that I would only be taking essential kit north.

Any excess personal stuff and equipment that I could do without I would leave with the helpful staff at the hotel and collect it when leaving the country or coming back to Tokyo.

At last things started to come together.

The biggest problem to deal with was getting a car. It appeared that in the whole of the greater Tokyo area there were no hire cars available.

Eventually Hannah, who would be our driver called with the good news that she had managed to get two cars, one hired and the other borrowed and driven by a Japanese guy, called Arata heading to Sendai looking for some of his family that he had not heard from since Friday not long after the quake hit.

Whilst we were waiting for them to come Richard and I went back to the airport to get the communication bits and pieces that we failed to get yesterday.

There we saw that the first of the international help teams had flown in.

The Germans waiting to be tasked having a McDonalds.

These guys are from Turkey.

The guys with the transport arrived at the hotel in the bright afternoon sun.

Before setting off we had to work out the best route north given that a lot of the roads were closed and those that were open had a lot of traffic on them.

Richard, Arata, Kyle, Cordelia and Hanah looking at route options.

Then setting the Sat Nav.

There were also another few considerations.

Reports were coming in of food and water shortages in the affected areas and that fuel was getting scarce all over Japan.

Some estimates were that eighty percent of the petrol stations in Tokyo were closed.

We would need full tanks and spare to allow us to get up to Sendai, do some driving around and get back without the need to refuel.

The lack of places to get fuel was surprisingly not our main obstacle.

It was getting a container to put the spare fuel in and being allowed to fill it up at a filling station.

There was a 7 Eleven store next to the hotel so we stocked up on what food they had left and bought out the hotel shop’s supply of bottled water.

The 7 Eleven store.

Hannah and translator Kyle had not seen any open petrol stations on the way out to pick us up.

We took the decision to get on the road and see if we could source some fuel and cans on the way before we reached the point of no return in terms of fuel consumption

No far from the outskirts of Narita we saw the first evidence of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami with cracked roads, collapsed roofs and toppled electrical poles.

First sign of the damage as we drive.


We also saw lots of dark empty filling stations.

There were a few that were closed with some of the staff still around so we pulled up and asked it they actually had no fuel.

We were told very politely that there was no fuel but they had heard that not far along the road a filling station had just taken delivery of a tanker full of fuel.

A little later we were once again passing one that was closed with people visible in the shop.

Kyle and Cordelia went in to talk to them and came back smiling.

Not only did the very kind people fill our tanks they gave us some onigiri, tasty little balls of rice wrapped in seaweed.

The closed filling station.

Filling us up.

Not just fuel but food as well.

At least we had enough fuel to get us there with no problem but, not enough to get back. We still needed to get petrol cans and get them filled up.

First Japanese sunset on the journey north.

We were passing a motorcycle workshop when Hannah spotted a large plastic container.

Once again Kyle and Cordelia went over to see if they could negotiate a purchase.

The Japanese are so kind and helpful that the pair returned with not just the can we saw but with another can that had been hastily patched up because it had a little leak.

Now we just needed to find another open petrol station and sneakily fill the cans.

Strictly speaking it’s a bit illegal to fill those types of containers in Japan.

Another few miles up the road we did see a line of cars at an open petrol station.

We joined the queue which was not all that long.

A plan had been hatched to try and fill up the cans without being seen.

When we got to the pump it was in a position that meant there would be very obvious to the staff.

They paid no attention to us as we filled things up.

There is a motorway that goes up to Sendai. It was closed to normal traffic.

We had been told that if we showed our press passes we would be able to use them.

So at the first opportunity we tried to get on the fast road.

Our press passes and pleading cut no ice with the polite but firm policeman manning the barriers.

The same thing happened at the next junction that was easily accessible from the road that we were on.

So we just continued in the dark night up the slower road.

We arrived at a big landslip that was blocking this route as well.

Sky News were there having just set up their satellite kit and were set to do live broadcasts.

It was very chilly when we stopped briefly to say hello.

Sky News ready to go on air at the roadblock.

Their satellite kit.

Our office had been trying to get us a hotel in the area and both Kyle and Arata had made calls from the cars to try but, it appeared that no hotels were either open or accepting guests.

As we got to the outskirts of the dark city we saw a shiny neon hotel sign in the distance.

We thought that we would give it a try. Those of us that knew Japan instantly knew from the style of the sign that it was a “Love Hotel”.

The population is so dense in Japan that it is difficult for couples to find space to be alone together.

So dotted around the cities are hotels like the one that we could see that provide discrete rooms.

The rooms are either rented buy the hour or for an overnight stay.

This particular hotel was more like a motel where you could drive your car into the private garage attached to the room.

Outside each door were red and green lights to indicate whether or not the room is occupied.

We pulled up and had a look around but, although the lights were on there was no one around and all the little garages were empty.

Love Hotel "Candy".

We carried on into the city to try and get a hotel.

There was only one that looked like it might be a possibility. The lights were on and we could see staff behind the desk.

The bedraggled six of us trooped in to the reception.

For the first time we met with a bit of jobsworth Japan.

There were no actual bedrooms available, which we could understand.

There was, in Japanese terms plenty of space for us to bed down in the public areas. However, even under these circumstances the slightly surly girls behind the desk would have none of it.

No room at this Inn.

By now it was round about 2:30 in the morning.

There was nothing left for it but to bed down in the cars.

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