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The Great Japanese Earthquake of 1923 page 2


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With a thunder and crash that deafened all other noises, the tiles were cascading right into the middle of the streets from the roofs on either side. Heavier things than roof tiles were also raining down. And everywhere were seen the wooden supporting pillars of houses bending and snapping as though, overnight, the huge tree-trunks had turned into tender young bamboo shoots.

He did not know why or how, but he made his way into the wide place in front of the Tokio station. It was filled to suffocation with people already - the people who had rushed out into the street, like himself, with the one idea of leaving behind every falling house and the sight of blood-chilling nightmares.

Not only the square in front of the station, but the wide stretch of broad avenues and open spaces in front of the moated Central Palace were jammed with people.

Mothers were calling for their lost children, and the shrill cries of the little ones for their mothers made men pause in spite of themselves in the midst of their frantic flight from death. It looked for all the world as though the bottom of the city had been knocked out by a blow and the whole city was falling right into flaming perdition.

Pushing his way past the great Marine Insurance Building, only four storeys of which remained standing, he halted for a moment to gaze in horror at a placard stuck up near the main entrance. On it, in Japanese characters, were these tragic words:

"Within this building are four hundred people. They failed to make their escape as the building fell. Deign to rescue them."

But the press was so great that probably few people could have turned aside, even if they had wished to.

As the ex-police officer watched, there was another violent shock.

"The ground rose," he says, "as though the earth was heaving a sigh. There was a tremendous crash, and the Marine Insurance Building, with the white placard on its gateway, went down in a cloudy mass. Then there was another shock, and the broken pieces of the building shrieked and groaned as if in terrific pain. And where were the 400 men and women trapped there? The very-thought froze my blood."

From there he made for the great bridge in the centre of the city - the Nippon Bashi - and managed to escape in the direction of the Momen Bridge. Every inch of this structure was packed with people, and the approach on both sides of it also. The refugees were packed so densely that it was impossible to move forward.

Looking up suddenly he saw, as he describes it, "huge chunks of fire come flying through the air, heaven only knows from what point."

Even as he was looking at them they landed on the roofs of the houses, hemming in the bridge on either side. In no time tall flames shot up from the houses all about the bridge. The winds seemed to sweep in every direction. There was a whirlpool of smoke and flame. It gathered hundreds of people on the bridge and near it in one huge embrace.

The people could not run; they were so tightly packed that all they could do was to wriggle, jostling one another in terrible desperation. Then the fire which had laid low the houses, began to burn the bridge.

"One who has seen such a sight," he says, "can never hope to forget it. Death, I believe, may not be able to wipe my memory clean of the sight which burned itself on it. I shall not try to paint it in words, because I can't.

"At last the bridge burned down and fell into the stream below, with heaven knows how many charred mortals upon it. I only know that the blackened skeleton of the bridge was loaded with them.

"As one crawling out of a nightmare, I somehow managed to get out of that district. That night I found shelter in the open space of the Hibiya Park."

One of the most terrible scenes in the capital was witnessed at the Asakusa Amusement Park, Tokio's Earl's Court, when the great tower, about 200 ft. high - a sort of Blackpool Tower - collapsed like a rag, and crushed hundreds of people to death.

An eye-witness, who had been attending a theatrical performance in the Amusement Park, tells how, when the second and third shocks were felt, he rushed out of the building with the rest of the audience. The first thing his eyes alighted on was the Great Tower.

"It was dead ahead of me, that twelve-storey tower," he relates, "but it was no longer a thing of stiff, dead brick and timber. It was making a bow like a living person one meets of a morning. It was bending from its waist at about the sixth storey. And it was bowing swiftly.

"It was no longer silent and dumb. For it seemed to find just then a voice - a voice that began like the howl of a tempest and ended in blood-curdling thunder. I shall never be able to forget that sound so long as I live.

"And right in front of us it came down, the whole upper structure of it, in a kind of triple bow. It seemed to me as though the tower folded itself up three times before it crashed down upon the hundreds of houses which hugged its skirt. Then, immediately, piercing the din and dust of the smash, many geysers of flame shot up."

Soon the big pond in the Amusement Park was choked with the bodies of women and children who had fled into the water in a last hope of escaping death by burning. Those who were not drowned in the crush were suffocated by the intense heat of the raging furnace, which lapped up and engulfed the crowded maze of cheap theatres, houses, side-shows and restaurants.

From Asakusa Park the eye-witness managed to make his way to a hill-top in Uyeno, and from this eminence he saw the buildings of the Imperial University burst into towering flames. It was from there also that he saw the Nicoli Cathedral of the Russian Church catch fire and burn down in an incredibly short time.

By then the city in the direction of the Nippon Bridge and all about Askusa was completely wrapped in smoke and fire. He tried to escape by the Kanda Bridge, but it was all broken up by the earth shock and it was impossible to cross it. As he was making a long detour he saw me Metropolitan Police building and that of the Department of Home Affairs begin to burn.

"I ran into men of the First Division of the Army," he continues. "They were fighting fire and death - meeting an enemy infinitely bigger than any human army. It was appalling odds they were fighting. But when a thing gets to such an extreme point, human beings forget that they are mortal. At least, that is the way they were fighting. It was a great sight. It made me forget for a moment the fearful predicament I was in."

By the time he reached the compound of Prince Kuni's palace, practically the whole of Tokio to the north was wrapped in savage fire.

Over one great open space, where some 30,000 people were taking refuge, death flew with mercifully swift wings. The entire concourse was wiped out by suffocation.

Several hundreds also met their death en masse in the great Fuji Cotton Mill.

There were more than 1,800 girls and some 800 men employed there at the time of the shock, about sixty per cent of them being inside the factory buildings just before that critical period of noon.

When the tiles on the roof of the buildings began to dance and fall down in showers, one of the foremen shouted: "Danger! Don't go out of the factory!" The girls obeyed automatically. They stopped their mad rush for the open and waited for the next command. But that command was never given.

Another shock and then another occurred, and down toppled the roofs. Then the walls collapsed, and the girls who had been so ready to obey were trapped and crushed under hundreds of tons of debris.

Immediately, through the fusing of electric cables, two of the ruined buildings caught fire, and the screams of the poor girls buried in the debris were terrible to hear.

Their cries, however, attracted the attention of a regiment of artillery who had been manoeuvring in the neighbourhood, and soldiers were quickly on the scene endeavouring to save as many as possible. They acted courageously, without any thought or regard for personal safety, and succeeded in rescuing a number of the trapped girls.

A Japanese reporter who passed by the wrecked Fuji Mill after the earthquake and fire had done their worst, was greeted by a singular sight. Scattered round about were huge sections of iron-piping, evidently intended for future construction of water-mains, and all these were inhabited by factory girls! They had set up house in them and were carrying on as though a terrible earthquake shock such as they had experienced was an everyday occurrence!

And streaming out upon the littered highway to Gotemba surviving girls who had come from that neighbouring town were returning home in company with their parents, rejoicing.

The reporter says:

"The mothers of the girls were much more tearful and excited than the girls who had just escaped. It was an endless dragon procession down the highway. Shrill laughter from some of the girls broke the silence of the countryside. It impressed me profoundly. It struck me that there is no power on earth that can conquer the mirth of youth - death in its most appalling form seemed to have been powerless to annihilate it, even for a few brief days."

But the officials at the mill were still dazed by the tragedy. Though they opened their mouths and made some sort of noise in answer to the reporter's questions, "there seemed-to be little sense in them."

For a time, the fire-fighting organisations in both Tokio and Yokohama were helpless. The streets were impassable, blocked by people and debris, and the water-mains had burst. Fires all over the city raged unchecked. In the capital, soldiers and Government officials did heroic rescue-work - but their efforts were sadly impeded by the unruliness of the panic-stricken crowds.

The earthquake extended, roughly, over an area sixty miles long by thirty miles wide.

Thousands of holiday-makers in the crowded resorts along Tokio Bay never again saw their homes or relatives. Entire towns and villages were wiped off the map; and what the earthquake left standing the fire destroyed. Where prosperous and happy settlements had once stood, nothing remained but gaunt heaps of smoke-blackened ruins.

Even the contour of the countryside was altered. Familiar scenes were distorted beyond recognition - hills were transformed into valleys and valleys into hills. Hot springs disappeared as if by magic and bubbled up afresh where there was none before.

Thousands of people fled into the trembling hills for safety, and there they remained throughout the day and night.

With the approach of evening in the capital, when the glaring, blood-red sun was slowly sinking over the ghastly scene of desolation and destruction, it was seen that the entire city was endangered by fire. As it grew darker, it appeared as though Tokio was ringed about with one vast red glare. Heavy clouds of smoke and dust hung over the ruins like a funeral pall, while the atmosphere was polluted with the terrible stench of thousands of unburied bodies and that of burning and charred flesh. From the stricken city there arose, now and again, a deep-drawn sigh - the wailing and crying of those who sought dead relatives and lovers.

A Japanese newspaper correspondent, who entered Tokio at ten o'clock on the night of the catastrophe, describes how he wandered about "a living hell on this earth, through smoke, fire and devastation."

All the "pride-spots" had been turned into a burned-out wilderness overnight. Flames, savage and untamed, swept over the lifeless bodies of old and young - bodies that were heaped up on the sides of the streets in mortifying piles, scattered here and there in the debris, or still pinned under the fallen timbers and masonry where death had come to them.

Women of the upper classes were fleeing in the direction of Aoyama - daughters helping mothers and older members of the family, all linked arm in arm as though their one thought was to be together in life or death. Pushing their way laboriously through this eternal stream of refugees were heavily-laden hospital corps with the wounded on their backs or on litters. With stoic heroism, they were taking the bloodstained burdens to some place of comparative safety, where first aid could be ministered to them.

"As I passed along the many canals," the reporter relates, "I saw thousands of people who had leaped into them as the fiery tornadoes swept the city. Most of these people presented an awful appearance. They had saved their bodies, which were under water, but they could not manage to save their heads."

People who had made good their escape from the earth shocks and from the sea of flames had to fight for their lives in quite another way. Thousands stood in line, waiting patiently for a cup of water. It was evident from the way in which they looked and acted that they had not had a drop for ten hours.

At certain centres police and soldiers were distributing rice and army bread. Women of noble birth and their daughters, reared in the lap of luxury, fought their way in the dense crowd to receive one of these coarse loaves - loaves which, a few hours ago, they would not have deigned to touch, let alone to eat. At some of the relief stations, serious riots occurred, and the soldiers were forced to use their swords to restore order.

In the open spaces and in the middle of the streets, people were sleeping on mats and torn-off doors, which they had dragged from their ruined homes. Even if their houses happened to be standing - which was very rare indeed - they were too afraid to chance sleeping under roofs.

To the hundreds and thousands of those who were encamped thus in the thoroughfares of the outer areas, there came, when night fell, a new terror. A cry went up that bands of fierce Koreans were murdering, looting, and poisoning the wells.

There is little doubt that this rumour was spread abroad purposely by the criminal elements in the city - the scum and refuse of the underworld and those who had been released or who had escaped from the prisons - in order to cover their own misdeeds. It certainly proved terribly effective.

Distracted refugees herded together in temples and school compounds, milling like frenzied cattle. And in such circumstances they fell easy prey to the robbers.

In the darkness valuables were snatched from grasping hands, and no one knew who had taken them. And those who strove to resist, crying out loudly that they were being robbed, were soon silenced by murderous thrusts of cold steel.

Until the city was placed under martial law, practically the whole area was at the mercy of the lawless.

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