Paraplegic, Washington local living in Japan recalls ‘disconcerting’ New Year’s Day quake

A WSU Alum living and working in Japan is thankful that the 7.6 magnitude earthquake that rocked the country did not put him in danger.

But he experienced the shaking firsthand – and as a paraplegic, also dealt with some major issues while the quake was going on. He says living through it on New Year’s Day was still a harrowing experience even after dealing with earthquakes his whole life.

Tom Haig dubs himself a Global Nomad, and travels the world cataloguing stories of people living with disabilities all over the world. His latest stop is in Nishinomiya Japan, which is between Kobe and Osaka.

He’s been working at a disability center and teaching English, and was in his apartment above the center the day the quake hit.

“It was really disconcerting, it was New Year’s Day so everything here was pretty much closed,” he recalled. “The building started to shake about 4 p.m. -- I have been in earthquake’s before, but I was like, ‘whoa here is an earthquake.’”

“It slowly came as a wave and I was like, ‘oh this must be a smaller earthquake,’ and it just didn’t stop!” he added.

The WSU alum proudly sported his Cougars sweatshirt during our early morning interview in the 5 a.m. hour this past Friday, Jan. 5. He admits that he was fortunate that the epicenter of the massive quake was not near where he’s staying, but he still had some major concerns when the shaking started.

He is a paraplegic and uses a wheelchair, so getting out of his shaking apartment and apartment building proved a bit difficult when stairs were clearly not an option. The elevator proved to be too much of a risk, so he toughed it out in his third floor apartment.

“I was afraid to go downstairs because I didn’t want to get stuck in the elevator in case the power went out,” he said. “After about half an hour I went downstairs.”

He was able to make it out and get outside on the ground floor where he met some of the people he’s been working with. The quake’s epicenter was nearly 200 miles from Nishinomiya, but Haig says the Jan. 1 earthquake is still the longest quake he’s been through of the four he’s experienced.

“Most of the earthquake’s I’ve been in it’s pretty abrupt and aggressive, maybe 15-20 seconds,” he said. “This went on for four or five minutes.”

The quake struck western Japan’s Noto peninsula in the afternoon on New Year’s Day -- flattening homes and triggering a tsunami warning.

Adding more tragedy, on Jan. 2 a Japanese Coast Guard plane collided with a passenger jet sparking a huge fire, prompting a plane evacuation and killing the Coast Guard crew.

Haig watched in horror, but also talked to his hosts about the incident.

“(They said) ‘our country’s cursed!’” he said. “That is what the conversation was around here.”

Haig is not leaving Japan, but admits he won’t forget New Year’s Day 2024, and hopes next year to ring in the new year without shaking.

“I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I hope I don’t experience it ever again,” he said. “I was actually getting seasick.”