DEVASTATION IN JAPAN | Waiting for word

Some quake survivors able to ease anxious kin’s fears

By Maria Sacchetti and Sean Teehan
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / March 13, 2011

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Greg Hachenburg was checking his e-mail Friday at his office in Hachinohe, Japan, a seaside city of more than 200,000 people, when a co-worker’s unattended cellphone suddenly went off. A ring tone like a car alarm pierced the quiet afternoon.

“It was like a woop, woop, woop,’’ said Hachenburg, a 24-year-old from Medway who is teaching English in Japan. “[I thought] why would he choose a ring tone that sounds like an emergency signal?’’

Later, he would learn that the phone was blaring an alert triggered by Japan’s state-of-the-art earthquake warning system. But the co-worker was away from his phone, and everyone ignored the alarm, until the three-story building began to shake.

Books flew off the walls. A toolbox plunged to the floor from a shelf above him. He scrambled under his desk as co-workers shouted to take cover. “It was very, very scary, sitting underneath the desk and hoping that everything was OK,’’ he said.

Now, Hachenburg and his friends in this neighborhood about four hours from the quake’s epicenter are safe, but rattled, in the aftermath of the 8.9 magnitude quake, the most powerful recorded in Japan. Survivors said they were grateful for the early warning system, a strong building code, and the fortune of avoiding the thunderous tidal waves that tossed boats and buildings onto city streets.

Hachenburg, a graduate of George Washington University, is teaching English as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, which draws 30 to 50 young New Englanders every year, according to Japan’s consulate in Boston.

No deaths have been reported of teachers, or relatives or friends of Japanese nationals living in New England, said Takeshi Hikihara, consul general of Japan in Boston. About 18,000 Japanese citizens live in New England, he said.

Hachenburg said he received an e-mail saying that three of the 120 people in his area’s exchange program were unaccounted for.

In Boston, Hikihara said officials had received more than 100 calls about the earthquake, including about 15 requests to locate relatives or friends in Japan. Most had been found, he said.

The consulate will stay open through the weekend, he said.

He urged those who wished to help to donate through the American Red Cross, which will channel the money to its counterpart in Japan. “We are trying to bring all the relief possible to those who are affected by the devastation,’’ he said. “The situation is very serious.’’

In many areas of Japan, communications were restored quickly enough for people to reach friends and relatives in Massachusetts within hours.

Yasumasa Itoh, the owner of Tampopo Japanese Cuisine in Porter Square, said his brother and sister in Tokyo called him Friday, after hours of worrying about their safety. He said they were worried, but safe.

“Everybody was scared,’’ said Itoh.

Takeshi Shio, 39, of Brookline said he was able to contact his parents in Sendai, near the quake’s epicenter, on Friday. He said they were frightened by the aftershocks, the damaged roads and buildings, and the temporary loss of electricity, water, and gas.

On Friday, an aftershock hit as he spoke to his father via Skype. “Infrastructures were severely damaged, so I’m really concerned with their situation right now,’’ Shio said. “Fortunately, they prepared for disasters. They have food and water to save their lives.’’

In Japan, Hachenburg said he was able to e-mail his anxious parents, Gail and Pete, and sister, Heather, in Medway two hours after the earthquake struck Friday, but then his cellphone went dead. They finally heard him from him around 4 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.

His mother had stayed awake, waiting for his call. “Oh my God, it’s been an awful couple of days,’’ Gail Hachenburg said.

Hachenburg, who has lived in Japan for three years, said supermarkets were open yesterday and electricity had returned late last night. He said he and friends were able to buy bananas, noodles, and bread, and were heartened by the camaraderie of neighbors.

But he said the city’s port appeared badly damaged in televised news reports, with boats in the roadways.

At home, he said, the aftershocks made it hard to feel safe. He ran outdoors four times last night — grabbing his laptop computer and a jacket that he had stashed in a backpack near the door — to seek refuge in a park out of reach of trees, buildings, or anything else that could fall on top of him.

“We just ran outside because we were too nervous and too panicked,’’ he said. “We’re a little overanxious I guess.’’

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at