As we watch the tragic events unfold following the dreadful earthquake in Japan on March 11, 2011, John Gyford – who lives in Essex – has told me of his father’s lucky escape from the massive earthquake in Japan in 1923. Criss Gyford who grew up in Fore Street, Ipswich, was twenty-one-years old and staying in Yokohama, Japan while between ships as a merchant seaman when the quake struck. It was just before noon September 1 when the massive earthquake shook Japan's Sagami Bay region, near Tokyo and Yokohama. Fires started as stoves overturned as most residents had been cooking their midday meal.
Fire storms caused winds of 150 miles-per-hour. In Tokyo 40,000 had moved to a central park for safety as buildings ignited nearby, the fire swept through the crowd like a flaming hurricane. Around 38,000 were killed in the fire storm. In the Sagami Bay a 30-foot tsunami flooded coastal Japanese towns.
One million refugees left Tokyo and cholera spread as people drank contaminated water. Those who stayed in the Japanese cities faced queues of over two miles to get a daily ration of rice. The earthquake, fires and tsunamis are thought to have killed around 150,000, with many more dying from the after effects of the disaster. Criss, who died in 1987, left a written description and photographs he took of that day in Yokohama in 1923. Criss said “I was sitting in a shop selling crockery and paintings. I looked up to the shelf when we got the first shaking, a few seconds later there came a mighty shaking as though the earth had hit something. Down came the crockery and shelves followed by the walls, I jumped backwards through the window into the yard where we kept the ‘hibachi’ a cooking stove. I was struck by something on the head which made me feel dizzy for several days. I scrambled along a passageway over sharp broken bamboo fencing and reached the road with neighbours and what a sight we saw.
Telegraph poles were leaning at all angles. Walls of houses had collapsed and people were crawling out from under heaps of furniture.” “Streams of mud were pouring down the road and two poles had fallen across a tramcar and almost flattened it. Clouds of dust came from buildings that were still falling and clouds of smoke from burning ruins were making it difficult to see very far. There was the noise of falling walls, the cries of children, yells of pain or shouts for help came from the ruins. Nobody knew how much damage had been done so it was not easy to decide the best thing to do.”
“We scrambled over heaps of bricks, pushing our way through the still standing fences of bamboo, clambering, slipping coughing and shouting. We took short cuts through what was left of houses and shops. The streets were packed with people and rubbish. We had little idea of where we were going but just wanted to get away from the broken walls, tottering buildings and clouds of dust.
Then we heard a shout which told us worse was to come. To our left was a cloud of smoke that was getting bigger. A great fire had broken out in the poor part of the city and was coming our way.
There was no way to stop it. Even if the roads had been open for fire engines all the water mains were broken. My friend Nishida was leading us towards the city park. We were not the only people, about fifty-thousand were going the same way. Many stopped on the baseball ground thinking the bare ground would be safe from the fire but they did not escape the smoke, heat and stampede and thousands just collapsed where they stood and were trampled to death. My friend took us towards an ornamental island not much more than a heap of earth about twelve feet square. We scooped out a small cave in the earth on the side furthest from the fire. Another couple and their children joined us. My friend and I stood in the water until it got so hot we could no longer stand there. When the fire did reach us many people jumped into the pond, fainted from the heat and drowned. We crouched down in our little cave and my friend took of his kimono and dipped it into the pond and held it up like a curtain. It became so hot we could see steam rising from the pond and bushes on the other side of the island burst into flames.”
“Suddenly there was a loud crack and something struck me on the back of the head. I was unconscious for about two hours. A tree had fallen across our little island but the main trunk had just missed us. The branches had burst into flames and Nishida had lost most of his hair and his back was badly burned. I was lucky as his wet kimono had fallen over my head, but I had five broken ribs. I was in plaster for six weeks”
“We needed to find food and water. The pond was full of dead bodies, mud and burnt trees. There was no choice, we had to drink that water. Our food came from smashed shops with policemen giving out the contents. That night we slept under the shelter of a rough hut made from the ruins. During the night there were heavy crashes as buildings fell to the ground and screams from injured people”
“In the morning the sight was almost unbelievable. What had been a great city twenty-four hours earlier was now a complete ruin. A few concrete building remained but they were burnt out blackened and cracked. I went to a part of Yokohama know as ‘The Bluff’ where I had left some clothes in the house of some American friends. I could only recognise the building from their burnt out car in the garage.”
Criss Gyfford was born in Ipswich in 1901 at his parents green grocers shop at 90-92 Fore Street, Ipswich. He was a pupil at Cavendish Street, Clifford Road and the Secondary School at Tower Ramparts. He joined the merchant navy as a cabin boy. He was on the Western Front during the final months of the First World War. After the war he returned to sea and qualified as a wireless officer. It is doubtful that his family then living in Hatfield Road, Ipswich, knew of the danger he was in on the other side of the world. In 1928 he left the sea to train as a teacher and was at Bramford Road School, Ipswich. Not surprisingly his special subject was geography. He returned to sea just once more on one of the ‘Little Ships” during the evacuation at Dunkirk on 1940. He died in 1987.