• Kyodo, Staff Report


The infrastructure ministry has been asked to come up with ways to ensure elevators are restored faster following an earthquake after it emerged that tens of thousands of people were trapped in upper floors of skyscrapers and high-rise apartments on Saturday night.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday that while it was good the elevators stopped after the earthquake to ensure safety, “it took too long to resume service.”

“I will (give instructions to the ministry) so that services will be restored quickly,” he told a regularly scheduled news conference.

The magnitude-8.1 earthquake, which struck near Japan’s remote southern islands and was felt in most parts of the country, caused about 13,000 elevators, mainly in the Kanto region, to stop.

An expert said that to resume services quickly, the government needs to ease regulations on licensed engineers.

At present, engineers need a wide range of skills to pass the government’s license exam, resulting in a limited number being qualified.

“Because the number of licensed engineers is limited, it may even take weeks to resume all elevator operations,” said Takashi Furumura, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Earthquake Research Institute.

Tokyo, where most of Japan’s high-rise buildings are concentrated, has already implemented regulations allowing engineers to initially reboot one elevator per building so people can evacuate before restoring the remaining ones later.

Furumura said this needs to be rolled out on a national level.

“Now, (the government) needs to enable a larger number of engineers to conduct inspections” which would require revised laws and regulations, he said.

Furumura lamented the fact that Japan failed to learn from a 2005 earthquake in Chiba Prefecture that caused 64,000 elevators to stop. He said it took about 20 hours to get them back into service “and nothing has changed since that time.”

“If a quake beneath the Tokyo metropolitan area strikes, as many as 75,000 elevators may stop in the worst scenario,” he said.

People trapped for hours in the upper floors of high-rise buildings in the Kanto region on Saturday recalled what happened.

“The building kept swaying for about a minute with a booming sound,” said Taro Kawano, a 24-year-old grad student from Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, who was trapped on the 53th floor of the Roppongi Hills complex with about 100 visitors to the Mori Art Museum, which occupies several floors in the building.

He said that it took more than two hours until the emergency elevator started working.

“Everyone stayed calm,” Kawano said, adding that visitors descended to the ground floor in groups of 15.

“I was scared, but I held my daddy’s hand so it was OK,” said Hirotaka Endo, 6, who sat on the floor with his father, Yuichiro, 37, until the elevator service resumed at the Roppongi Hills observatory deck.

Some people, feeling impatient, had to be calmed down after the earthquake shook the skyscraper, but there was no chaos, the elder Endo said.

They where among hundreds who were in the building to see a “Star Wars” exhibition.

When the earthquake struck, visitors were told to squat on the floor and wait for further instructions. They were informed that the elevators had stopped for safety reasons.

High-rise apartment buildings were also affected by the earthquake.

Tomoko Ozeki, 43, from Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, was visiting her brother’s apartment in Koto Ward, Tokyo, and looking after her 4-year-old niece when the quake struck.

“The shaking got more and more intense and all the photos decorated on the walls started swaying,” Ozeki said. “My niece got so frightened she came to hold on to my arms.”

About 160 people were trapped on the 69th floor of Yokohama’s Landmark Tower, one of Japan’s tallest buildings, after two elevators connecting the observation deck and second floor stopped for about 80 minutes.

Some visitors decided to take the stairs down.

According to Mitsubishi Jisho Property Management Co.’s Yokohama office, which manages the building, there were no reports of injuries or illness from visitors.

Mitsubishi Electric Building Techno-Service Co., a major provider of repair and maintenance services for elevators, revealed the quake had affected some 7,500 Mitsubishi Electric elevators in the Kanto region, including those in Landmark Tower.

It said as of 9 a.m. Sunday only 10 percent had resumed operation. By 7 p.m. Monday, most were back online or were scheduled for resumption, an official said.

Meanwhile, Hitachi Building Systems Co., a maintenances services provider based in Tokyo, confirmed that nearly all of its 6,000 elevators stopped following the quake. Most were restored Sunday.