Dictated by Disaster

Jon Snow explains the doubts that form inside a correspondent’s head when sent to report from a country in chaos
Fukushima, elderly woman surveys the wreckage following the enormous tsnuami that destroyed the coastline
I know in the first few minutes of hearing the news from Japan, I’ll have to go. I was about to embark upon an undercover trip to Sri Lanka and was reluctant enough about that. The Sri Lankan government has been out of love with Channel 4 ever since we started running mobile phone footage of atrocities perpetrated by government forces against the Tamil minority. The tsunami serves to divert me.

In the inital flush of knowing I’m going on a big story I think of reasons not to. I have a kind of inbuilt resistance to sudden change. A panned weekend in the country, or dinner with friends – the reasons not to go are plentiful. Yet there is another me, desperate to go. For 35 years, the other me has always prevailed.I’m told that I’ll be going to Japan two hours after the quake hits. Six hours later, I am on the Heathrow Express headed for the airport. How I hate the final phone calls to my family, rattling along on the train. Calls that are interwoven with texts and emails detailing still more of the horror that awaits me at my destination. The technology may have changed but the process of disconnection with one world and connection with another is eternally uneasy. It is almost always unplanned, serendipitous – dictated by events.

Yet when the British Airways door closes, the transition suddenly solidifies. And the other world is left behind. Suddenly it is the new world of catastrophe, of tragedy, survival, and death awaits me. Strangely, I’m now impatient to get there. I begin to visualise the challenge, not only of being there, but of getting there in the first place.

When it comes to it, I am not even on a flight to Japan, I am en route to Shanghai. Tokyo airport is shut and no one is sure when it might re-open. We have to gamble that we can get into another airport in Japan and then find a way into the earthquake zone.

Landing in Shanghai, we drag our 12 boxes of equipment off the carousel. I never check a personal bag, so I have that on my shoulder. Three trolleys do the trick and we hurtle from one terminal to another. As we run, I marvel that China seems to have achieved in 20 years what has taken us a thousand.

There is one flight to Osaka still running and we are on it. But what do we do after that? I settle back with Pat Metheny’s Secret Story on my headphones and my MacBook Air open on my knees. Will the bullet train to Tokyo still be running?

“I approach a Toyota estate car…I open the front passenger door. The whole family is there, two children in the back, mother, father, in the front. They are dead. They have drowned”

It is, and suddenly we are on it – it only stops for two minutes to allow you to board. All six in my team have heaved our heavy cargo into carriages not designed to carry it, and we are whistling past urban, normal Japan. It’s 24 hours since the news broke and we have been travelling for 16 of them. London wants us to transmit, but we are not in the tsunami zone and know nothing. The joys of modern journalism – we can communicate but have nothing to say.

In Tokyo, we link up with our amazing Japanese production team. Three vans, wellies, water, rations, iodine tablets, they have thought of everything. We are on the road. At 3:00 am Japan time, 6:00 pm London, we stop on a random street in a random village and set up so that I can anchor Channel 4 News. We still have no original content beyond being nearer the disaster than anyone in Britain. Communications are good, the lighting is dim, activity is nil. But somehow it has some weighting; we are, after all in Japan. We get away with it.We have concluded we cannot stop for the night, with the motorways closed; it will take us another 12 hours to get there. Already, with no sign of devastation, we can see Japanese infrastructure grinding to a halt.

Then, suddenly, 30 miles from Fukushima, we are amongst it. At first, light damage, a roof off here, a lamppost down there, a shop window cracked. Within a few miles it begins. Mile upon mile of matchwood, of fabric, stick, stone, kitchen sink, and car upon car thrown at crazy angles.

It is, in the same instant, emotionally overwhelming, and journalistically challenging. The boy inside me cries, as I see the immediate human catastrophe through the eyes of my own children. Yet I also see it as the grown-up reporter and wonder how I can capture it without cliché or hyperbole.We are on a raised highway filming the devastation below. Ranged along the roadway are lines of shiny red fire engines and rescue trucks. The rescuers have long rods and are now spreading across the wreckage, prodding for the bodies of the dead. Thirty-six hours after the tsunami struck, there is no sense of searching for the living.

I am now down amongst the wreckage myself. I am amid the remnants of homes that have been born miles from their foundations by the sheer strength of the tidal wave. A banal thought crosses my mind – I should watch where I’m walking: one of the nails in this timber could go through my foot. I approach a Toyota estate car; it had been white but is now smeared with mud. I open the front passenger door. The whole family is there, two children in the back, mother, father, in the front. They are dead. They have drowned. I find myself crying.

“I approach a Toyota estate car…I open the front passenger door. The whole family is there, two children in the back, mother, father, in the front. They are dead. They have drowned”

Somehow, without mawkishness, I must bring this home to people in our own unmolested land. We are not allowed to show footage of dead bodies, we must find other ways – a teddy face down in the mud, a baby’s drinking bottle.

Tens of thousands have lost everything. And then nuclear fallout is thrown into the mix. Parts of the Fukushima nuclear power plant have melted down. There is an exclusion zone. How much more can this blighted region take?Every night at 4:00 am we go live from the wreckage, our tiny picture seeming inadequate to describe how big, how forceful, how all-destroying this thing is. And once again the banal enters my head. Is this the worst time difference in the world? Nine hours ahead in the UK. “Good evening, it is 7:00 pm in London, 4:00 am here in Sendai, the Japanese city at the epicentre of the tsunami’s wrath…” And then after a week, my mobile rings; it is my editor. “Come on home…Libya’s taking off.”You feel a sense of desertion, of letting the victims down by leaving them, and yet you know that your job is, for now, done.

I tell myself, as I board the plane for London, I will come back, I will report the resilience of these people, I will report their recovery, and the rebuilding of their shattered lives. I hope.

Jon Snow is a British journalist who has earned numerous awards throughout his career, and has anchored Channel 4 news since 1989