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Worker inside stricken reactor recalls quake

Hiroyuki Nishi narrowly escaped death the day the monster earthquake struck Japan two weeks ago . Now, the place where he cheated death -- inside reactor No. 3 at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant -- is the reason he can't go home.
/ Source: Reuters

Hiroyuki Nishi narrowly escaped death the day the monster earthquake struck Japan two weeks ago when a 200-ton hook on a crane came crashing down a mere two meters (6 feet) from him during the convulsions. Now, the place where he cheated death -- inside reactor No. 3 at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant -- is the reason he can't go home.

Reactor No. 3 has been leaking high radioactivity and its operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), can't say why. Days of dousing it with water in a desperate attempt to cool its used but probably exposed fuel rods have been inconclusive. Workers who got radioactive water on their shoes were hospitalized.

The Japanese government has imposed a 20-km (12-mile) evacuation radius around the plant because of the radiation danger, and Nishi's hometown of Minamisoma sits right on the cusp to the north.

Nishi, 31, works for a contractor that did construction jobs around the nuclear power plant and inside its six reactors. On March 11, he was inside the reactor building directing a ceiling-mounted heavy-duty crane, moving scaffolding material to be taken outside.

At 2:46 p.m. the quake struck with titanic force, at magnitude 9.0 the most massive earthquake Japan has ever recorded. It was as long as it was colossal, lasting more than two minutes, and also led to a huge tsunami. More than 27,000 people are dead or missing.

"I felt things shaking, and then it went crazy," Nishi recalled in an interview. "I was shouting, Stop! Stop!" Then the lights went out, leaving about 200 workers inside the reactor in near-darkness since the structure has no windows.

'Everyone was screaming'
A small red emergency light started blinking. "Then some kind of white smoke or steam appeared and everyone started choking," Nishi said. "We all covered our mouths and ran for the door." But the door leading outside was locked, shut down automatically during the temblor to contain any leakage. The workers were stuck. "People were shouting 'Get out, get out!'" Nishi said. "Everyone was screaming." Pandemonium reigned for about 10 minutes with the workers shouting and pleading to be allowed out, but supervisory TEPCO employees appealed for calm, saying that each worker must be tested for radiation exposure.

CRESCENDO TEPCO began testing workers but the crescendo grew. Nishi recalled angry shouts from among the workers including expletives from a couple of Canadians. "We were shouting that the reactor structure was going to collapse or that a tsunami might come," Nishi recalled. Radiation exposure was the last thing on their minds. Eventually, TEPCO workers tested about 20 people before giving up and throwing open the doors.

The freed workers sprinted for their cars or to higher ground. Nishi ended up in his car with a co-worker who also lived in Minamisoma, about a half-hour drive away. They made it out of the nuclear plant in time to avoid the killer tsunami but were hardly prepared for the drive home. It was like a journey through an apocalyptic landscape.

Traffic was jammed, and strong aftershocks made the car flail repeatedly. Nishi and his friend's cellphones went off constantly with "earthquake-coming" alerts, and the car radio blasted frantic reports of unspeakable damage from the tsunami and warnings of further tidal inundations. They passed wrecked buildings, cars that looked as though they had tumbled from bridges, and dead horses and cows by the roadside. Several homes crumbled before their eyes from aftershocks.

Image: A baby undergoes a screening test for signs of nuclear radiation as he sleeps on his mother's back at a health center in Yonezawa
Tsubasa Nishi, a nine-month-old baby from Minamisoma in Fukushima, undergoes a screening test for signs of nuclear radiation by a doctor as he sleeps on his 27-year-old mother Azusa's back at a health center in Yonezawa, northern Japan, 98 km (61 miles) from the Fukushima nuclear plant, March 25, 2011. Tsubasa's 31-year-old father Hiroyuki Nishi told Reuters on Friday that he worked at the No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit the area. Tokyo residents were warned not to give babies tap water because of radiation leaking from a nuclear plant crippled in the disaster that devastated northeast Japan. REUTERS/Issei Kato (JAPAN - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT HEALTH ENERGY IMAGES OF THE DAY)Issei Kato / X90003

Fears for family
Nishi couldn't get through to his wife Azusa, 27, by phone. He was panic-stricken about not only his nine-month-old son Tsubasa at home but his 6-year-old son Hayato who was at kindergarten at the time the earthquake hit. "I was shouting at the phone: Please, please connect!" he said. Nishi and his colleague lapsed into fatalistic doomsday conversations. "We talked about three possibilities," he said. "That our entire families had died. That some had died and some lived. Whether our houses were still there." The thought that all family members might have survived didn't enter into their minds. "Seeing what was happening, we just knew it wasn't possible," Nishi said.

As they finally got to Minamisoma, it became clear that Nishi's colleague's home couldn't be standing. His wife, 7-month-old son and parents making it out seemed remote. Nishi dropped his friend off and went to his own home. It was partially collapsed and in a shambles from the earthquake, but the tsunami had stopped 100 meters (yards) short of the house, which was four km (2.5 miles) inland. No one seemed to be home. Loudspeakers in town told people to head to evacuation centers; the closest one was at Kashima Middle School, the same junior high school Nishi had attended. Nishi made his way there, and at around 7:30 that night he arrived at the school -- and found his family there, intact, including his mother. "I saw my wife, and I was just so, so happy," he said, audibly choking up. "I let loose with my emotions. I kissed my kids' faces all over; I touched their faces everywhere. I kept telling them, 'I'm so happy you're alive.' There were lots of tears."

The next day Nishi went to his home and found he could squeeze in the door. He hurriedly collected a few items: warm clothes, instant noodles, bottled water.

His colleague's parents are missing and presumed dead, but his wife and son survived. Nishi and his family have relocated to an apartment in neighboring Yamagata prefecture. He gets a government allowance for three months, but it's only for housing. He longs to go back to his house, and retrieve precious family photos and his beloved surfboard and wetsuit.

He also has mixed feelings about his work at the nuclear plant. "I had work and got paid, so I don't think badly of it," he said. "But, they said over and over that it was safe. I just want to ask why."