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'Truly frightening'

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Brian Walker sits with his daughter, Samantha, 10, and wife, Pamela, as he describes how the recent earthquake in Japan was much stronger and different than the other tremors that they have experienced there. The Walkers are staying with family in Stephens City until they feel it’s safe to return. Andrew Thayer/Daily

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Shenandoah Valley native's family safe after earthquake, anticipating return to Japan

By Sally Voth --svoth@nvdaily.com

STEPHENS CITY -- The double whammy of a terrifying 9.0-magnitude earthquake and deadly tsunami weren't enough to shake James Wood High School graduate Brian Walker's or his family's love of their adopted homeland.

Walker, his wife, Pamela, and their 10-year-old daughter, Samantha, have barely been at his parents' Stephens City house a week, but already they're anticipating their return home to Japan.

A lawyer, Mrs. Walker works in the tax department of GE's Tokyo office.

After seven years in Japan -- plus her year there as a college exchange student and Walker's time in Papua New Guinea while in the Peace Corps -- the family has grown used to frequent earthquakes along the so-called Ring of Fire in the Pacific Basin. Most of those quakes lasted 20 or 30 seconds.

However, the March 11 temblor was the stuff of nightmares.

"It went on for two minutes, and it just kept growing and growing," Walker said. "The aftershocks were just coming one right after the other."

A quake two days prior was unusual in that it was almost a gentle swaying, he said.

"The one Friday started the same way," Walker, a speech and language pathologist, said. "Wednesday's was longer than usual and ended with some jerkiness."

On March 11, the earth shook from side to side, but with greater force, and ended by moving up and down, "which was truly frightening," Walker said.

It was followed by two hours of near-constant aftershocks.

Japan's tall buildings are built on detachable foundations to withstand earthquakes moving side to side, but not up and down, Mrs. Walker said. She was in a room full of Japanese natives, and when the shaking switched to vertical, they started "freaking out," she said.

"We were getting queasy because it kept just going on and on," Mrs. Walker said.

The couple was able to exchange e-mails with each other, so they knew they were all right, and Walker was able to raise Samantha on her cell phone two hours after the earthquake.

"It was really scary because that was my first big earthquake," Samantha, a fourth-grader, said.

Schoolchildren in Japan are well-prepared for quakes due to frequent drills. Samantha's school even includes the parents in one drill.

"In our classroom, there's a white rod that we call the white thing, and if it shakes more than once, that means there's an earthquake, and usually the first person to notice it shouts out that there's an earthquake and then we get under our desk," said Samantha, whose Japanese name is Sachiko. "Some people in our class were crying."

On March 11, she stayed under her desk for 44 minutes.

While the earthquake was frightening, the tsunami devastated parts of the coast, although the Walkers were a good distance from the tidal waves.

"In Tokyo, if you went there, you wouldn't be able to tell that anything happened," Mrs. Walker said.

Fears over radiation leaking from the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear facility, about 200 miles from where they live, is what reluctantly sent the family temporarily back to the U.S.

They're getting "really reliable" information about the situation from GE Energy, the embassy and the ambassador, Walker said.

"When you have a child, you want to err on the side of caution," he said. "For us, leaving is [hard]. We have friends. We have neighbors. We have people who aren't just going to be able to hop up and leave. It's home for us. We really like it there. We're very comfortable. We're very happy. We're ready to go back home."

Samantha has mixed feelings.

"I want to see my friends in Japan, but it's kind of dangerous in Japan as well," she said. "[The tsunami] was maybe as scary [as the quake] because it was frightening to watch it happen. I never knew that tsunamis could break houses."

To try to help the country she has called home most of her life, Samantha held a yard sale Saturday, earning more than $240. Her parents will match that, and then GE will match the entire donation.

The family hopes to return to Japan this week or next. Mrs. Walker has continued to work remotely.

Samantha realizes that she lived history.

"I know that I survived the earthquake, but it's more amazing for the people in [tsunami-ravaged] Sendai who survived both the tsunami and the earthquake," she said.

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