TOKYO, March 14, 2011 -- I spoke exclusively with American workers who have been in Japan for the last two months working on the Fukushima nuclear plant, renovating one of its reactors. They had just completed work on it the day before the earthquake struck.
This disaster, the worst earthquake and tsunami ever recorded in Japan, dealt a knock-out blow to the cooling systems at the Fukushima nuclear reactor. Barely 24 hours later, an explosion at the first reactor destroyed the outer wall.
American worker Greg Henderson told me he had worked in at least 15 plants in Japan, and had just left the Fukushima plant when the earthquake struck.
Although there have been concerns over deadly radiation exposure and a possible meltdown since the quake happened, Henderson said working in a nuclear power plant was just as safe as working in a grocery store.
"It's just like any other business, it just has more safety," he said. "I'd rather work in a nuclear plant than anywhere else. It's safe."
Now Henderson is bunkered down at a hotel in Tokyo, trying to get back to the U.S. He described what it was like to live through the quake.
"I heard claps like a big smack up against the wall," he told me. "I'm sitting in a chair...[the earthquake] throws me and the chair to the floor, and the TV sitting on the desk landed in my lap."
"I look out the window and I can tell the building is shaking, swaying back and forth," he said. "I could see cracking. I looked at the corners of the walls and they're shifting back and forth. The split goes through the wall and I look at the ceiling and go, well do I sit here and ride it out or do I try to get out."
Despite items falling all around him during the quake, Henderson said he knew he would survive.
"I'm not dying in Japan," he said. "I mean, I know that...I was in Vietnam in 1970, and felt then, and feel now, that you are in survival mode, but you gotta do whatever you do."
A Nation Working Together
As an indication of how Japan is pulling together, so many people have complied with the government's plea to conserve electricity that there has only been one blackout.
Signs in government and other buildings ask people not to use elevators, to walk up and down stairs if they can, turn off as many lights and appliances as possible, and the Japanese people are following these orders.
In the meantime, in the hardest-hit areas, more than two million people are without electricity and they are running out of fuel, water and food.
I visited the Japanese Red Cross Society, where a command center has been set up to direct aid, supplies and medicine to the neediest.
Blankets are desperately needed, as it is cold up in the northern disaster zone. Japanese Red Cross director Satoshi Sugai told me that despite their preparation and training for earthquake disasters, what has happened here is "beyond our imagination."
A map of Japan starkly lays out the challenge: tsunami damage is rampant up and down the entire eastern coastline.
The Red Cross says it's very difficult reaching the hardest-hit areas, but there are incredible and miraculous stories of survival.
A man who had clung to the roof of his house was rescued after floating around for 48 hours, 10 miles out to sea. His wife, who hadn't had the strength to hang on, was washed away and has yet to be found.
The death toll is officially around 1,600 but officials say it could exceed 10,000.
In a dramatic and poignant moment, a government official burst into tears when I asked her how many towns and villages might have been destroyed.
A spokesperson for Prime Minister Naoto Kan told me that there was no way of knowing the full extent of the damage because it has been difficult to make an estimate.
"We have seen some villages that were totally wiped out," he said. "We need to reconstruct entire villages."
In a normal emergency, the central government relies on the prefectures and the prefectures rely on the local officials to report what has happened.
But as the spokesperson told us, in this case, "the officials are gone," meaning that the people who would normally provide the government with these damage assessments are either dead, missing or not able to communicate with the central government.
Kan added that the government's focus was on caring for the living, not so much counting the dead at this time.
"It's going to take time focusing on rescue," he said. "[People] need shelter. They have been evacuated. they need temporary housing."
Kan also acknowledged that the situation at the Kukushima nuclear power plant was one of the government's biggest worries.
"I think situation is under control, but we have to watch out," he said. "There are aftershocks. We have to be vigilant about those."
But Kan downplayed the issue of potentially deadly radiation levels in the air, and said he didn't think there was a risk of a meltdown.
"We knew some would be emitted because of venting," he said. "But that level is very low."