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Mercer Island couple survives earthquake in Japan, finds comfort in social media

This is the view from Islander and Kirkland business owner Ashley Harris
This is the view from Islander and Kirkland business owner Ashley Harris' 19th floor hotel room in downtown Tokyo.
— image credit: Contributed Photo/Ashley Harris

A 20-minute cat nap could have been the difference between life or death for a Mercer Island couple that has survived the most powerful earthquake to hit Japan on Friday. The 9.0-magnitude quake that struck off the coast of Japan Friday pummeled buildings, set off massive fires and tossed a subsequent 30-foot tsunami over the largely-populated City of Sendai, among others. Ashley Harris, a registered dietician and owner of Crave Health in Kirkland, is currently in Tokyo on a business trip with fiance, Tyler Besecker — both from Mercer Island. Besecker's family owns the Dana F. Besecker Co. on Mercer Island and he frequents Japan every year to sell fish for the company — one of the biggest buyers and sellers of Black Cod in the world, according to Harris. The couple planned to take the trains on Friday to go explore Japan before heading home on Saturday.

"But Tyler decided that he wanted a 20-minute power nap before we left, which ended up saving us, actually," said Harris in an e-mail to the Reporter. "Had we not have been waking up from our nap in the hotel room we would have been stranded in a different city with the trains shut down without any way to communicate. We felt the trembles and stood there for a second after realizing it was an earthquake."

The couple saw buildings start to shake and sway from their Mitsue Garden Hotel room on the 19th floor. Harris said they ran to the doorway and it "just kept progressively getting worse and worse."

The doors and drawers in the hotel room slammed open and shut, things fell off the shelves and "I almost vomited due to the swaying, almost like being seasick," Harris recalled, noting they were not injured.

She said it they couldn't understand the Japanese announcements coming over the loudspeaker. A trembling housekeeper came to their door to try and tell the couple what was happening, but she couldn't speak English.

"We didn't know whether to stay or go, we grabbed our shoes, jacket and passport in case we had to flee but the maid gave us the hand sign like 'wait one minute' and went to ask them to announce in English for us."

Hotel staff told the couple to stay in their hotel and Harris logged into her Twitter account to check for news updates. Then she started Tweeting family members, her patients and even local media.

"Traffic in Tokyo is currently very jammed as far as we can see. Flights out of Narita are all canceled," she said in one Tweet on Friday.

"Just woke up, five aftershocks as we tried to sleep, last one about three minutes ago," said another Tweet.

As of 5:40 a.m. Tokyo time, Harris and Besecker were still safe in their hotel room, watching the sun come up and CNN reports on TV. However, they were still experiencing many aftershocks. According to CNN, there has been more than 50 aftershocks so far.

"Hundreds of people on the streets below us last night were stranded with no place to go since the trains were shut down and traffic was gridlocked," said Harris, noting they are also being warned of 6-10 meter waves from a tsunami that could hit. "We can see Tokyo Bay from our hotel room and should be safe should the tsunami hit."

Harris, who is set to fly out of Narita Airport on Monday, said the quake was the biggest she has ever experienced and it was scary, especially due to the language barrier.

But she is thankful for social media.

"Funny thing about social media is that it ended up the best way for us to get information as it was happening and also to communicate to our friends and family," said Harris. "I am keeping everyone updated via my Facebook and Twitter."

Contact Harris via Twitter at http://twitter.com/cravehealth.

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