Lawyers at major international and domestic firms were among those Tokyo residents left stranded at their offices Friday evening by a massive earthquake that knocked out elevators and transport in the Japanese capital.

The 8.9 magnitude earthquake, which originated Friday afternoon around 80 miles offshore of northeastern Japan, spawned a devastating tsunami that washed away houses and cars in coastal areas near the epicenter. Dramatic television footage showed the tsunami completely inundating the ultra-modern Sendai Airport as well as large swathes of pristine farmland.

Around 23 people were reported dead, with many missing.

In Tokyo, there was no tsunami but the powerful earthquake and its several aftershocks were strongly felt.

Los Angeles native and longtime Tokyo resident Maxwell Fox, an intellectual property partner with Ropes & Gray, was getting ready for a client meeting when the first temblor hit around 3 p.m. Tokyo time.

“I’m used to earthquakes,” says Fox by phone from his office on the second floor of the Yusen Building in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district, “but this was the most severe I’ve ever felt. It was rolling, just a very disconcerting feeling.”

Gary Wigmore, a project finance partner in the Tokyo office of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, works in the Roppongi district, on the twenty-first floor of the office tower at the Tokyo Midtown complex, one of the city’s newest and splashiest mixed-use developments.

“The building was moving left and right and swaying several inches,” Wigmore said via e-mail. “The building creaked, and there was the sound of steel bending.” Books fell from shelves and pictures from walls, Wigmore recalled, and the floor began to move beneath his feet.

“It was like walking on the deck of a ship where you feel like falling and have to reach out to the wall to brace yourself,” he said. “A number of people including myself felt nauseous.”

Wigmore and other Milbank employees have been drilled on how to respond to earthquakes. They donned hard hats and walked down the 21 floors to a predesignated area. Everyone was safe and accounted for, said Wigmore. The group gathered in a nearby park and stayed there for a few hours. Some then went home, while others returned to the office.

At the nearby Izumi Garden Tower, Akira Kawamura, the current president of the International Bar Association and a senior partner at Anderson Mori & Tomotsune, one of Tokyo’s Big Four corporate law firms, encountered little swaying. Reached via e-mail Friday afternoon, he said: “I am now on the top floor of our office and looking around the city, which is absolutely safe and peaceful although the elevator of our building is not moving.”

The elevators stoppage posed a problem for both himself and the firm’s other employees, Kawamura said. Should they stay put or walk down 37 flights and try to go home?

But it was a tough choice even for those on lower floors. The subways and commuter trains which connect Tokyo’s sprawl were shut down by the earthquake; many office workers would face walks of several hours to get home, with a lingering threat of further aftershocks dogging their journeys. Mobile phone connections were spotty as well.

Fox said Friday night that television announcers were advising those who worked in Class A downtown office buildings to stay there overnight, as such buildings are generally built to the highest standards of earthquake-resistance. But many were clearly eager to get home.

Describing the scene outside his office, which overlooks the grounds of the Imperial Palace, Fox said: “It’s just jam-packed with cars, and there are just hordes of people.

“And this is not an area that normally gets a lot of foot traffic,” he continued. “I can only imagine what it’s like around Shinjuku or Shibuya stations.” Shinjuku and Shibuya are both major commuter train hubs in Tokyo; the famous pedestrian crossing outside the latter is one of the busiest intersections in the world.

But despite the chaos, Fox said the feeling in Tokyo was not apocalyptic. He said partners at his firm would conference this weekend to take the temperature of the situation, but he expected everything to pretty much return to normal by Monday, barring further seismic activity.

“It’s obviously much worse up north,” he observed.

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