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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Narrow Escape For Wrestlers In Japan

Note: The following column by Senior Writer Dan Murphy is slated to appear in the issue of PWI that goes on sale May 24. We have chosen to post it here early to convey the story while the images of what took place in Japan are fresh in the images of people's minds.


When the earthquake struck off the coast of Japan on the afternoon of March 11, independent wrestlers Jake O’Reilly and Shawn Spears were traveling in a tour bus, about 30 miles outside of the northern city of Sendai.

“We felt the bus shaking. We thought we had a flat tire,” O’Reilly recalled. “Once we pulled over, we saw the trees moving and the other cars pulling over, and that’s when we realized it was an earthquake.”

The two Canadians had experienced their first earthquake a few weeks earlier, when the dojo where they were staying was shaken by a small tremor shortly after they had arrived from Ontario for three scheduled tours with All Japan Pro Wrestling. But earthquakes are common in the islands of Japan, and when this quake struck, O’Reilly and Spears tried to remain as calm as the Japanese crew onboard the tour bus.

“What struck me was that the earthquake went on for such a long time, maybe two, 2½ minutes,” Spears said. “I could tell it was a big one, but we were in the countryside. We had no idea about the damage it caused.”

With the bus pulled over to wait out the tremor, the driver turned on the television sets to check the news. The TV monitors showed a map of Japan, with an ominous red circle that covered the northern section of the country. The Japanese began chattering excitedly.

“The news was in Japanese and I didn’t understand,” O’Reilly said. “I turned to Minoru Suzuki and asked, ‘Suzuki-san, what happen?’ He said, ‘Danger. Tsunami.’ I said, ‘Where?’ And he pointed right into the middle of the red zone.”

With the highway they had been traveling upon closed due to damage from the tremor, and facing the prospect of driving along unfamiliar back roads under the threat of a tsunami, the driver opted to keep the bus where it was. They remained there overnight, waiting until sunrise, as most of Northern Japan had lost power.

For 16 hours, the All Japan crew waited through the inky blackness of a tense and uncertain night. Taiyo Kea translated the newscasts for his Canadian compatriots.

Sendai, the city where the bus was headed, was devastated by the tsunami generated by the 9.0 magnitude quake. It was the largest quake ever to hit Japan. Waves up to 30 feet tall slammed into the Japanese coast, sweeping away homes, cars, and trains.

“Fear didn’t really sink in until we saw the pictures of the waves coming in,” Spears said. “We didn’t know where they were. I was looking over at the hills outside the window, and I didn’t know if a wave would come over those hills at us at any time.”

“Honestly, I’m very lucky to be talking to you today,” O’Reilly said. “We had been scheduled to leave half-an-hour earlier, but one of the guys was late getting onto the bus. Had he been on time, we would have been in Sendai when the tsunami hit.”

The ring crew had arrived before the tour bus and was in Sendai when the waves came in. Luckily, the building they were in remained intact. It was used as an emergency shelter and makeshift morgue.

As word of the magnitude of damage taking place spread, All Japan officials decided to cancel the remainder of the tour, and the bus began making its way back to Yokohama, about 20 miles south of Tokyo. The drive proved to be slow, as the bus navigated back roads and traffic, creeping southward as news continued to filter in.

“We were on the bus for 36 hours total, basically living on protein shakes, water, Snickers bars, and Sapporo beer,” O’Reilly said. “As we drove back to Yokohama, we passed through these small towns where the houses had been flattened, and people were lining up in the streets to get fresh water.”

Once they were safely back at the All Japan dojo, they were able to log on to to read English language news accounts of the tragedy. They were also able to contact friends and family back in Ontario and in the United States to let them know they were safe.

On Sunday, a hydrogen explosion rocked the Fukushima nuclear power plant, spurring concerns of a radiation leak. “The water was contaminated by radiation, so we couldn’t drink that. On the last couple days we were there, they didn’t want anyone to go outside and risk exposure,” Spears said.

The Canadians had been scheduled to remain in Japan until May, but with the status of upcoming shows in question, they met with All Japan management and opted to return home. To get to the airport, they had to catch both a train and a bus, and aftershocks of 7.0 and 6.5 threatened to disrupt travel further. If international flights were grounded, they would be stranded.

Fortunately, they were able to get to the airport and make it home without further complications, shaken and saddened by the devastation they had witnessed.

“The training, the living in the dojo, it really creates a bond,” O’Reilly said. “I only knew the guys for a month or so, but I still felt guilty leaving them there. I really hope they can rebuild.”

Despite the fear and anxiety they experienced, both Spears and O’Reilly hope to return to Japan.
“Wrestling in Japan was a dream come true,” said O’Reilly. “If the office called me tomorrow, I would be on the next flight back.”

“I’d go back in a heartbeat,” Spears said. “My heart is with those people. Millions of people are devastated, without heat and power. It really makes you appreciate the things we take for granted.”

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