Rendezvous With an Earthquake for a Hiroshima Native

Ritsuko Komaki, 67, grew up in Hiroshima after the atomic bombing there. Her experience led her to become a radiation oncologist, and she now works at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, treating lung cancer. Komaki was minutes from landing at Tokyo's main airport when the earthquake struck last week.

Science spoke with Komaki after she'd returned to Houston. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: I understand that you just came back from Japan. Can you tell me about that?

R.K.: That's correct. I left here [Houston] Thursday. I was supposed to give a talk on Saturday in the morning in Tokyo [about] radiation therapy in very early lung cancer.

Our flight from here was supposed to land at Narita [Narita International Airport, about an hour's drive from Tokyo] at 3:20 March 11, so Friday. Around 3 o'clock this earthquake hit. A Continental Airlines agent announced that we are unable to land at Narita Airport because the airport has been closed because of this earthquake.

Nobody mentioned how bad [it was].

They said we have to land someplace--they were circling around, very close to Narita there was a base, an air force base. We landed [there].

We were there almost 1 hour.

Then they said we are going to Nagoya airport. That was after 7 p.m. We landed there.

There were no Continental agents, and nobody knew--the people who are on the airplane—about 260 people, they didn't know what they should do.

Q: What did you do?

R.K.: Fortunately I have my oldest sister living in Nagoya, she has been there 40 years. My oldest sister is a veterinarian. She said, "Well, you can come to my house." I took a cab.

By the time I arrived at her house it was 1:00 a.m. Then I recognized what's happening because I watched TV.

She told me that this is one of the biggest earthquakes that they have had.

And while I was there they did have like a grade 3 mild earthquake, but Nagoya is inland and they did not get much of the tsunami. They were very lucky.

While I was watching TV, this nuclear plant exploded, number 1.

I didn't have much time to sleep or anything. I was just totally amazed what's happening. They were reporting the tsunami swept away villages. And then they showed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. … They are having the problems with the cooling system. … They had to relieve the pressure by opening the valves and the steam came out with cesium.

Cesium has a 30-year half-life—I started to think about oh my goodness, what will happen. This is like a history of Chernobyl.

Then they started to talk about number 3, its danger, and number 2, they were trying to inactivate.

Q: What happened next?

R.K.: I really wanted to go to Tokyo that morning, Saturday morning at 10 o'clock to give my talk. I kept calling and calling--Continental airlines, Nippon airlines. No one answered.

I ended up calling the organizer in Tokyo. She said, "We are having problems here, whoever [comes] will have a very small meeting and for your sake we don't want you to come. We are still having earthquakes and it might be too dangerous to come here." The train between Nagoya and Tokyo had been stopped.

Q: What did you do after that ?

R.K.: I couldn't get to the meeting. But I saw every detail [on TV], really terrible, terrible … the number of the deaths [kept] going up.

But then my main concern was this nuclear plant explosion, how much radiation the people who are living around the area will get, and I really think they have to get away.

Since I grew up in Hiroshima, I knew how long it would take to get rid of this radioactive material. The incidence of cancer in Hiroshima is way up compared to just regular cities. They have much higher leukemia, thyroid cancer, breast cancer, stomach cancer, prostate cancer, bladder cancer.

Q: It sounds like what's happening now is making you think back to growing up in Hiroshima.

R.K.: Yes. This is kind of a coincidence. It's a disaster. They have to let the people know exactly what will happen, the delayed effects [of radiation exposure].

Q: Do you think that the atomic bombings of Japan during World War II are affecting how people are reacting now to the nuclear disasters?

R.K.: The experience of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- the one thing they have is the fear of radiation [even as therapy]. Radiation treatment [for cancer] treatment is not popular in Japan.

Q: You have family in Japan, still—your sister?

R.K.: My younger sister, she still lives in Hiroshima, and my older sister, she lives in Nagoya. They're doing fine.

Q: Do you have plans to go back to Japan?

R.K.: Yes. I have meetings in June in Sendai. I just got an e-mail [saying] they are planning to have this meeting, but they are saying they might postpone the date. The airport has been wiped out.