1 Nov 2011

The tsunami revisited – a cameraman’s perspective

Channel 4 News cameraman Stuart Webb often has to cover major stories at just a few hours’ notice. As he prepares to return to the Japan tsunami zone Stuart reflects on his last visit there.

Filming the tsunami devastation in Minamisanriku.

What to pack? Well, I had already packed – but for the wrong story, in the wrong country.

On the morning of the tsunami I was meant to be going to Libya and the prospect didn’t fill me with great excitement.

This was in the days before the Nato air campaign and at this point in the Libyan revolution the rebels weren’t doing very well and Colonel Gaddafi’s forces were heading towards Benghazi.

The general view was that the colonel would exact a terrible revenge on the people of that city and that there would be a bloodbath. I was to head to the front line.

I awoke with a grim resignation. I knew the coming days would be awful and very dangerous. But our job is to bear witness, for better or for worse, and so I steeled myself for the worst.

Just as I got ready to head to the airport the phone rang. It was my foreign editor, “Forget Libya you’re going to Tokyo. Have you seen the pictures? It looks like the biggest disaster movie ever. Can you make a midday flight?”

And with that brief call I was plucked from the front line and redirected to one of the biggest earthquakes and tsunamis in recorded history. I immediately back- timed how long it would take me to get to the airport to make the flight and realised I had 10 minutes maximum to pack!

The gear I had ready for Libya was all wrong. I’d packed domestic camera gear – handicams and helmet cams – to be less obtrusive – and all my personal kit was based on mild desert temperatures – not winter in Japan. At least now I wouldn’t need to lug my body armour and helmet to the airport.

I’m used to being scrambled to major stories with little or no notice and quickly do the logistics in my head.

Japan earthquake and tsunami: interactive video and timeline map
Tsunami debris at Tanohata village, Iwate prefecture (Getty)

Preparing for a disaster zone

The most serious send is to go to a place where you can presume there will be no food, no water, no accommodation, no power, no communications, and no medical back-up. Basically nothing. This is a ‘Full Monty’ send – a place where you have to take in everything to survive and operate. There’s one story I’ve done again and again where this is almost always the situation – a major earthquake.

It was now 2am and we’d been going three days now without stopping.

In the minutes remaining I only had time to start re-packing my professional camera gear. I grabbed a sleeping bag and a gortex bivvy bag in case I had to sleep rough – and headed for the airport.

I called the ITN garage en route. The guys there do a great job organising field logistics and always rise to the challenge of a major fast-breaking story. They would meet me at Heathrow with the rest of my camera gear, some military-style ration packs, satellite communications gear and a first aid trauma pack.

Then the newsdesk called to say the flight had been cancelled – Tokyo airport was shut to check for earthquake damage – instead I was to fly to Okinawa and make my way to the disaster zone from there.

This was good news for me as the later flight gave me an extra hour to get ready – so I found myself on the pavement outside Terminal 5 packing all my gear – much to the bemusement of departing passengers. To my delight and great amusement I looked up to see one of the passengers was my friend and colleague Alex Thomson – he’d also been meant to be heading to Libya that day – with me!

Watch the video: the report Stuart filmed from Minamisanriku
Preparing for a live broadcast in Sendai.

Functioning without sleep

I’d already prepared myself for a trip of extreme sleep deprivation – and so it proved to be. We flew from London to Shanghai and immediately got a connecting flight to Okinawa. Once there we got all our kit off the flight and onto a local train to a mainline station – we then lugged all the kit from that train onto a bullet train to Tokyo.

We then met our Japanese staff and transferred everything to people carriers for the long drive north to the earthquake zone. We loaded up with food, water, generators, fuel and wellington boots. We then drove through the night eventually reaching Sendai – the main city to be hit by the tsunami at the southern end of the disaster zone.

We had now been going for two days without a break but we didn’t stop. We pressed on north. Our Japanese producer was hearing through Twitter and through her contacts a consistent story that the town of Minamisanriku was the worst hit and that 9,000 people were missing. We decided we weren’t going to stop until we got there.

We arrived after midday. It’s an unfortunate comparison given the history of Japan, but there was no getting away from the fact that the town looked like it had been hit by an atomic bomb. The scene starkly reminded me of those iconic back and white photographs of Hiroshima after the explosion – huge swaths simply flattened with the odd concrete structure still standing here and there.

This is exactly what it looked like for miles in every direction. I’ve covered many earthquakes and natural disasters – and many man-made ones too – but there is absolutely nothing to compare with the absolute destruction wrought by a tsunami.

There is absolutely nothing to compare with the absolute destruction wrought by a tsunami.

As we left it was turning dark. We had a five-hour road trip ahead of us – at the end of which we had to edit the lead story and then get ready to broadcast a one hour live-special programme with Jon Snow. I edited with Alex in the reception area of a hotel in Sendai – minutes counted so I figured getting all the gear into a room was a waste of time – reception would do.

Thankfully the hotel’s internet connection was still working so we used it to feed our story back to London. Then it was straight out onto the street. We didn’t have to go far to find a backdrop. In the streets outside hundreds of cars and trucks had been tossed around like children’s playthings by the tsunami. They’d come to rest in twisted contorted piles.

It was now 2am and we’d been going three days now without stopping. I got to work setting up the live broadcast in the middle of the street while my colleague Ken got the autocue ready for Jon Snow. We used two Bgan satellites to run the kit. One would send the live pictures and sound to London while the other would drive the autocue. Both were powered by a portable generator while another generator powered the lights. I’d never run a whole live one-hour programme off a satellite phone but with just five minutes to go before the live transmission we established links and went to air.

At 4am on day three I finally got to bed, well sort of, I slept on the floor in a corridor of the hotel we’d edited in. In two hours we’d be up to do it all again.