Diary of a first-time fixer
by Gavin Blair
March 15 in Miyako: People try to rescue belongings from their collapsed house.
The long night of the quake is a blur of aftershocks, articles and phoners for radio and TV. While talking to someone at one of the TV stations I agree to fix for one of their crews parachuting in – without any real idea of what that entails.
Saturday is strangely calm: some ‘normal’ work in between more phoners and quake articles. Then a call from the crew’s producer: the plan is to stay in Tokyo and cover the markets. Not exactly where the story is, but with the situation at Fukushima, maybe not the worst option…
Sunday, after renting the biggest vehicle available, a seven-seater that I suspect is too small for a TV crew’s needs, I head for Narita. At the airport I bump into my oldest friend in Japan – whom I’ve known since we were 16 in London – doing the ‘fly-jin’ thing.
One parking ticket and an illegal maneuver fine later, we have location hunted Tokyo on the way back to the hotel. I get my assignment for Monday: set up interviews with the heads of the TSE, Sony, Toyota and Nissan. I suspect they may be busy.
Sunday night, change of plans, we’re heading to Tohoku and need a bigger vehicle. I finish a couple of articles, pack a bag for the disaster zone and grab a few hours sleep.
Monday morning, I leave my bag at home – planning to grab it when we come to change the car – and head for Roppongi. No trains from my station and walking looks faster than the standstill traffic. After six kilometers and some blisters I jump a bus heading central, followed by train and taxi. I arrive at the hotel 3½ hours later to find the crew is growing impatient. After another hour convincing Roppongi police to give us the emergency access pass, there’s no time to change the car or get my bag. We’re off to find destruction for the first live shots, me in the clothes I’m standing in.
We take some major detours that I blame on a temperamental sat-nav and sleep-deprivation – the ‘talent’ is by now getting decidedly, if somewhat understandably, testy. We eventually reach the outskirts of the tsunami-affected area in Ibaraki; there’s enough damage for live shots, which we shoot until 1 a.m. We find a hotel with heat but no running water and I knock out an article on a computer I borrow from the cameraman.
The next day we tape some shots in Fukushima and encounter SDF crews in hazmat suits near the plant. After we get to Yamagata and I buy clothes and toiletries, the crew’s headquarters are on the phone telling them to pull out now because of the impending nuclear meltdown. I’ve had a beer and am in no state to drive to Tokyo. We spend the night there doing phoners before heading for an evacuation center in the morning. After filming evacuees and getting scanned for radiation, it’s a 400 km drive to Tokyo and all-night live shots at Shibuya crossing where I knock out another story on a borrowed laptop.
The following night we film until 5 a.m. in Shibuya again and I get home at 7.30 a.m. Friday morning after a 22-hour shift.
I’m due to fly to Hong Kong the following night for the film festival. Sipping champagne at after parties is appealing but doesn’t feel right on many levels. I cancel: my editor is not happy.
After a few hours sleep I’m heading back to Tohoku with FCCJ members Julian Ryall and Rob Gilhooly. Despite the exhaustion and the horrendous scenes we witness, it’s good to work with friends. The three-day trip is a story in itself – but one that is being told elsewhere in these pages.
I return to Tokyo shell-shocked by what I’ve seen and take a day’s ‘rest’ writing before agreeing to go north again fixing for a journalist who has flown in. This should be easy, no gear, just one journo.
His antics make the TV talent look a battle-hardened warrior. Despite having supposedly covered other major natural disasters, he brings no food or drink, no clothing warm enough to sleep in the car – a distinct possibility. He is aghast that roads are closed and at the long roundabout routes necessary. He is upset that we can’t find a room last-minute in Sendai – apparently 250,000 homeless means temporary accommodation is scarce – and bitches to his girlfriend on the phone about the long drive to the hotel I have found.
After more histrionics the next day we reach a school where nearly every pupil was swept away by the tsunami, along with the entire town. Their deaths are even more tragic because they didn’t climb the hill directly behind the school, believing the tsunami would never reach them.
I translate as we interview a mother who has lost both her children. When she talks about her son – whose body they’ve yet to find – I start to crack. He was the same age as my son, just finishing his third year of elementary school. After we finish I find a pile of rubble to hide in and break down, sobbing like I haven’t done since I was their age.
As we sit in the car, I realize that I haven’t noted the mother’s first name. Cue another hissy fit. I locate the mother – she is still looking for her son’s body – and get her name.
We head into Sendai to write the story. He asks if they have Starbucks. I think he’s serious. We’re lucky and find a restaurant that has just reopened. There’s a big aftershock and he starts to run for the door, stopping when he sees the other diners continuing their meals.
Stories filed, we head for Tokyo; we don’t talk much. ❶
Gavin Blair began his writing career a decade ago and currently covers Japanese business, society and culture for publications in the United States, Asia and Europe.