“ALWAYS get to the scene as soon as possible”, is a mantra for the Tokyo picture team. It is advice which features prominently in the pocket-sized guide to emergency coverage procedures produced by our boss Michael Caronna - a guide which has also become indispensible in everyday coverage too.
Japan is one of the world’s most seismically active areas and the Tokyo Pictures team’s emergency earthquake coverage plan is well-developed and paid off recently when we covered a powerful earthquake in Northern Japan.
The guide suggests a very clear and concise principle: “Have equipment and photographers in place at all times and just go when it happens.”
So we keep long lenses, a Nera sat-phone, a small generator, extra batteries, gasoline container, a portable TV, a radio and survival kits with emergency food, bottled water, wet weather gear and the like, in the Company car. rain gears, etc, in the Pix van and the contents are checked regularly. We carry laptops and basic camera gear with us day and night.
Because a strong quake in Tokyo may also tumble our office building, we have a second parking space near where Issei Kato, Toru Hanai and I live, about 10 Km away from Tokyo office. Every night one us takes the van, our mobile office, and parks it near where we live and brings it back to office in the morning.
From time to time, as an emergency drill, we test filing pictures by sat-phone using the generator from the office or from a local park.
When the 7.2 magnitude quake struck Iwate, about 500 km north of Tokyo, on that Saturday morning, we followed the guide to the letter.
0930 AM, about 40 minutes after the earthquake alarm hit local media, Hanai and I were already on the highway to the scene with our mobile office, company car, because we didn’t have to waste time picking up gear in the office and left before we even knew how many earthquake casualties there were.
While Hanai and I rushed to the scene, Michael was picking-up pictures from local media in the office while Kato looked for alternative transportation to the earthquake site. All bullet trains had stopped and flights to the nearest airport were fully booked, so he set off in a rental car.
Hanai and I arrived around 2 o’clock and our first pictures hit the wire two or three hours ahead of our competitors, after which everything seemed to go very smoothly.
Kato who has a lot of experience in earthquake coverage found a spot to which evacuated victims were being ferried by helicopter and his picturesquickly followed ours on to the wire.
Hanai and I separated and we all kept shooting and filing pictures of shelters and landslides until midnight.
Around 1 AM, we tried to get some sleep but were back on our feet by 4 AM because our earthquake expert Kato knew rescue workers and civil defense troops start work early. While our competitors still dozed, Hanai and I had moved daylight pictures via mobile and satphone from the scene of a landslide area, while Kato had negotiated his way on to a civil defence chopper enroute to a spa resort buried under a landslide, the only wire service photographer to do so.
Hanai located an evacuation centre from which we filed our pictures and as I finished filing we watched our competition arrive at the landslide area, long after the rescue teams had packed-up for the day. It was at that point I realised that we had won this story.
Our efforts were rewarded by two pictures in the IHT including the front page.
In the end the earthquake did relatively little damage and there were few casualties. The scale of the event was far smaller than we feared and anticipated but it did prove that careful contingency planning, following established emergency procedure, close teamwork and an early start are an essential combination when disaster strikes.