Around 2 in the afternoon on March 11, I was eating a late lunch with my wife and daughter in Terminal 2 of Narita Airport, after checking in for our 4:30 American Airlines flight to Los Angeles.

At the moment the earthquake struck, we were in the restaurant, relaxing and knocking back a few glasses of sake. My wife immediately hid under the table, but I stayed where I was, draining the sake in my cup and staring at the landscape outside the window. I didn’t want to miss seeing what effect the disaster might have.

After the first tremors stopped, the restaurant employees announced that we should all evacuate.

“Please don’t worry about paying the bill,” they said, “just go outside immediately.”

But no matter how bad an earthquake is, you can’t just eat and run. I headed for the register to pay, and there was already a line forming.

Later the foreign press would report on the integrity of the Japanese people. Here it was, just after the earthquake, on display in front of me.

All of the flights for that afternoon were canceled. We lay cardboard boxes down on the ground in the third-floor departures lobby and spread out our sleeping bags.

There was a big-screen TV next to the security gate broadcasting nonstop earthquake information all through the night: The magnitude was 9.0… The epicenter was off the coast of Miyagi prefecture… In the airport vicinity the intensity was less than 6… Dozens were dead…

We probably could have gotten more precise information if we’d been in the city, but it was difficult to figure out the full scope of the damage just from that distant TV.

There was no way we were going to be able to sleep. The emergency warnings kept coming in on our cellphones and on TV, and we prepared ourselves for the aftershocks. Outside the terminal, an eerie alarm rang out. It sounded like a strong wind howling through the pines.

Then the whole building started to shake, as predicted. We knew it was an aftershock, but with no guarantee that it would be smaller than the first quake, we couldn’t calm our fears.

Each time we drifted in and out of sleep, we heard the emergency earthquake warnings, followed by the eerie sound of the alarm and the aftershocks… That night in the terminal seemed to last forever.

Afterward, we miraculously got on a plane to Los Angeles, rented a car, drove 420 miles toward Phoenix and ended up checking into a motel in Chandler, Arizona, because we were lost. We spread out the food we had bought at a supermarket on the table in our room and turned on the television. Images of the tsunami suddenly spilled from the screen.

Sitting in our motel room, watching the muddy water gush through the beautiful rugged coastline of Tohoku, we were stunned into silence.