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Thursday, Sept. 5, 2002

THE ZEIT GIST

Reaching out to Japanese hit on Sept. 11


Nearly a year ago, on Sept. 11, the Japan Helpline undertook its most difficult aid effort since the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe back in 1995.

It was the evening of Sept. 11 in Tokyo. I was chatting online with a friend when he suddenly said "it looks like there was a plane crash in New York." Still not grasping what had happened, I switched on CNN and witnessed myself the nightmarish scenes in the States.

Along with others from the Japan Helpline, as we did after the Great Hanshin, or Kobe Earthquake, when we fielded nearly 2,000 calls from all over the world, I immediately began to contact our sources at CNN, BBC, Fox and NHK, who scrolled our telephone number and Web site address across the bottom of the screen, and advised Japanese who needed help to contact us.

Within minutes, the calls began to come in.

"Help, I am in New York right near the World Trade Center. Something terrible happened but I cannot understand English. I don't know what to do," a distraught Mrs. Hoshino told us.

"Should I stay? Should I leave? What is happening? Please help. I saw your number on the television on CNN and called. . ."

Then Mrs. Watanabe: "Help. My husband was in the World Trade Center. I cannot reach him. Is he all right? I don't know who to contact. I am desperately afraid."

Initially we assisted those callers in the immediate New York area who were stuck in buildings, afraid to leave. They needed help in finding a place to go, contacting family members, getting information. One of our first callers was the Japanese Consulate -- even they needed help.

Desperate and worried individuals continued to jam the lines.

Nonstop the calls came in, as people saw our telephone number on the screen and called looking for help, to find out what had happened and to ask that family members be told that they were ok.

There were calls from family in Japan, from frantic parents worried because they hadn't heard from their children.

"My daughter is traveling in the United States. I cannot contact her. Is she all right? Can you help? We just saw your telephone number on the NHK news," explained a Mrs. Kumagai.

And there were calls from those wanting to help. "I would like to help volunteer to help those hurt in New York. What can I do?" asked Mr. Ito.

On that day alone, we were swamped with over 1,000 telephone calls, 13,000 e-mails, 2.7 million Web site hits from those in need, family, friends, and, most distressingly, calls from those with family inside the World Trade Center.

We put together a database of those who were known to be safe and began the sad task of letting some know that their family members were not on the list.

As the day wore on, the queries began to shift to those on planes throughout the U.S. As soon as the attacks occurred, all planes in the country were grounded, making emergency landings at nearby airports.

Thousands of confused Japanese suddenly found themselves at tiny airports around the U.S. with little or no explanation as to why they were there.

Many tourists on the way home had no money to cover the costs of a longer stay. The Helpline entered countless negotiations with local hotels, volunteers and others to find places for them to stay and, ultimately, a flight home. Planes around the country were grounded for several days so most were not able to return to Japan for a week.

There was good news for most, though not all, of our callers that day.

Mrs. Hoshino is all right -- we were able to get her the information she needed -- and Mr. Suzuki was able to make it safely home.

Sadly, Mrs. Watanabe's husband died in the World Trade Center.

Mrs. Kumagai's daughter made it safely home, while Mr. Ito and many others traveled to New York to work as volunteers.

A year on, the biggest lesson we learned from Sept. 11 was one we thought we had learned after Kobe -- to be prepared for anything.

That anything could be a typhoon, an earthquake, or even a tragedy on the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks.

While some events, like those of a year ago, defy pre-planned relief efforts, there are some simple steps that members of the international community can take to make that relief effort a little bit easier should it be needed.

These can include having a meeting place pre-arranged with friends or family in the event of emergency, and having food and water supplies to hand should usual supply lines be cut off.

It's always best to be ready.



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