At over 1,000 feet in length and weighing roughly 100,000 tons, the USS Ronald Reagan, a supercarrier in the United States Navy’s Seventh Fleet, is not typically thought of as a speedboat. But on a March day in 2011, the Nimitz-class ship was “hauling ass,” according to Petty Officer Third Class Lindsay Cooper.
Yet, when the Reagan got closer to its destination, just off the Sendai coast in northeastern Japan, it slowed considerably.
“You could hardly see the water,” Cooper told me. “All you saw was wood, trees, and boats. The ship stopped moving because there was so much debris.”
Even after more than 20 years in the service, Senior Chief Petty Officer Angel Torres said he had “never seen anything like it.” Torres, then 41, was conning, or navigating, the Reagan, and he describes the houses, trucks, and other flotsam around the carrier then as “an obstacle course.” One wrong turn, he worried, “could damage the ship and rip it open.”
The Reagan—along with two dozen other US Navy vessels—was part of Operation Tomodachi (Japanese for “friends”), the $90 million rescue, disaster-relief, and humanitarian mobilization to aid Japan in the immediate aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. For the sailors, the destruction was horrific—they told me of plucking bodies out of the water, of barely clothed survivors sleeping outside in sub-freezing weather, and of the seemingly endless wreckage—but the response was, at first, something they’d rehearsed.
“We treated it like a normal alert,” Cooper said. “We do drills for [these] scenarios. We went into that mode.” She and her approximately 3,200 shipmates moved food, water, and clothing from below to the flight deck where it could be put on helicopters and flown to the stricken residents.
But that sense of routine soon changed.
“All of the sudden, this big cloud engulfs us,” Torres said. “It wasn’t white smoke, like you would see from a steam leak,” he explained, but it also wasn’t like the black smoke he saw from the burning oil fields during his deployment in Kuwait in 1991. “It was like something I’d never seen before.”
Cooper was outside with her team, on the flight deck, prepping before the start of reconnaissance flights. She remembers it was cold and snowing when she felt, out of nowhere, a dense gust of warm air. “Almost immediately,” she said, “I felt like my nose was bleeding.”
But her nose wasn’t bleeding. Nor was there blood in her mouth, though Cooper was sure she tasted it. It felt, she said, “like I was licking aluminum foil.”
On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 pm local time, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck about 40 miles east of Japan’s Oshika Peninsula. The quake, the world’s fourth largest since 1900, devastated northern Honshu, Japan’s main island. At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, located near the epicenter on the Pacific coast, the temblor damaged cooling systems and cut all electrical power to the station—power that is needed to keep water circulating around the active reactor cores and through pools holding decades of used but still highly radioactive nuclear fuel.