“I left home and drove toward the R&D center. Once I crossed the Kinugawa River, the damage to the surrounding buildings was clearly more severe. When I arrived, the first thing I saw was that the external walls of the building had collapsed. I was shocked.”
Kaname Tahiro, Engineering Coordinator of the Facility Administration Department at Automobile R&D Center (Tochigi), Honda R&D Co., Ltd.(hereafter Tochigi R&D Center), takes us back to the day, March 11, 2011. When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, Tahiro happened to be on holiday at his home in Utsunomiya City. The damage there was relatively minor. The quake had only triggered the gas supply emergency shutdown valve. Tahiro says the electricity and water supply remained on as usual, with no obstacles to normal daily life. Yet just half an hour away by car, the area around the Tochigi R&D Center had been attacked by furious, prolonged shaking.
“Shortly after the shaking began, alarm signals sounded on various equipment,” said Tahiro. “I thought there must be some mechanical problem. When I was going to see what was wrong, the shaking continued for longer than I expected and I couldn’t even walk. Manager Hagiwara called out for everyone to get under their desks, and we all took cover.”
This is how Engineering Coordinator Tatsuya Kanemitsu recounts the moments after the earthquake struck. Inside, people reeled left and right along with their desks, and everyone started to realize this earthquake was far stronger than any they had known before.
Hagiwara recalled: “The earthquake continued for a really long time. We just wanted it to stop. It became impossible to endure. Everyone wanted to run out from under their desks, but that is the most dangerous thing to do. You shouldn’t get out from under your desk until the shaking stops. I remember screaming, ‘Don’t run away!’ It went on for 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Even more than the strength, it’s the length of the earthquake that I remember.”
Shaking in the area around the Tochigi R&D Center had a seismic intensity of an upper 6, and calculating from the acceleration of the shaking of the buildings, they suffered a seismic intensity of 7, the highest on the Japan Meteorological Agency seismic intensity scale, which measures the intensity of shaking at each location (a 9.0-magnitude earthquake). Damage to the design building, which runs through the middle of the R&D center grounds, was especially severe. Ceilings fell, walls collapsed, and fire shutters dropped from their mounts. The somewhat soft ground around the Tochigi R&D Center swayed in this unprecedented earthquake—with severe results.
The quake struck at 2:46 p.m. After the shaking stopped, efforts toward reconstruction were quickly organized without supplies of water or electricity. In the few hours before sunset, five teams were formed, centered on the Facilities Management Section personnel, and work tasks divided. Reconstruction activities began from the following day.
Hagiwara explained: “The sky was clear on Saturday morning. In the morning cold, each team surveyed the damage with cameras in hand. We were still having aftershocks, so we began our survey from the outside. Of course, we were all wearing helmets.” Associates from the Automobile R&D Centers in Asaka and Wako also arrived to provide support. The decision was made to use Cafeteria No. 1 as the reconstruction base.
Continuing the story, Engineering Coordinator Shuhei Tanaka explained: “Our suppliers, general contractors, and other business partners sent more than 1,000 people to help. First, to clean up the Cafeteria No. 1, which we used as the base, everyone was ordered to line up so movement wouldn’t be wasted. We then began a bucket brigade to remove the debris, starting with the highest priority areas.”
Fortunately, the cafeteria faces the parking lot and has a large veranda, and can also be accessed from the front entrance. The removal of debris “went so smoothly, it was gone before we knew it,” says Engineering Coordinator Kosuke Kawai.
At the 450-meter-long design building, where product design work is conducted, the rescue of personal computers used for development—the very lifeblood of the R&D center—moved forward. The reconstruction crew somehow secured a 100-volt power source and checked the condition of high-performance computers used for development. Within about 10 days, the computers were removed from the damaged R&D center and relocated together with personnel to the Suzuka Factory, Automobile R&D Center (Wako), Hamamatsu Factory, and other locations under a satellite office plan. The development team, with more than 1,000 members, was divided into seven locations and resumed development work less than a month after the earthquake.
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