April 6, 2011
Japan's devastating earthquake shook Spears
By PETER DOWNS - St. Catharines Standard
Nearly two weeks after he was caught in the middle of Japan's devastating earthquake, Ronnie Arneill was still grappling with mixed emotions.
The St. Catharines-born wrestler was relieved to be back home, safe from the ongoing radiation threat from tsunami-ravaged nuclear power plants.
But he regrets having to cut short a three-month wrestling tour he considers one of the highlights of his professional career.
And most of all, he can't stop thinking about the many victims he saw who lost everything in the disaster and the feeling he could do nothing to help.
"The main thing is the people. I don't know how they're going to recover from it," he said Wednesday, watching news about the quake aftermath on TV at his family's Merritton home.
"I just saw a lot of people that were suffering."
Arneill narrowly dodged being among them in one of the worst-hit locations on Japan's ravaged northeast coast.
The 30-year-old, who goes by the stage name Shawn Spears, arrived in Japan in mid-February for what was supposed to be a three-month wrestling tour.
The day the massive 9.0-magnitude quake hit off the coast, triggering a 10-metre high tsunami, Arneill was on a tour bus with a group of other wrestlers en route to a show in the city of Sendai.
About half an hour outside the coastal city as the bus travelled through the countryside, the road began to rumble and shake beneath the wrestlers.
Arneill recorded about 90 seconds of the quake on his cellphone video camera. The clip shows other wrestlers smiling and laughing as the seat backs bounce and sway as though the bus were riding through a series of potholes.
In a country used to frequent quakes, no one seemed too concerned about the quake at first.
"Because we were out in the country, we couldn't see the damage it was doing to buildings."
But just half an hour up the highway, much of Sendai was being smashed to rubble and then swamped in a deluge of water.
Stuck on the damaged highway, TVs on board the bus showed the wrestlers the first terrifying images of what lay ahead.
And had the bus not been running behind — one of the wrestlers had been 30-minutes late when they headed off on their six-hour trip from Yokohama that morning —they would have been right in the middle of disaster.
"You'll never hear me complaining about somebody being late again," Arneill said.
Unable to move far forward or back on the mangled road, the bus spent the entire night parked on the highway. The following morning, it headed south on secondary roads, passing cities and towns with scenes of devastation that have dominated TV news programs for much of the past two weeks.
Arneill said the dire reality of the situation sank in for him and the others on the bus when they came to their first store and found its shelves already empty and dozens of dazed quake victims holding the fort inside.
"Everyone was panicking. You didn't know who lost what or who lost their houses," he said.
"You literally feel like the smallest thing in the world. You're helpless and all you can do is hope."
It took the wrestlers 19 hours to make the drive that would normally take a third of that time to their gym in Yokohama, outside of Tokyo.
The facility in Sendai where they had been scheduled to perform had been turned into an emergency shelter for victims left homeless in the quake. It also served double duty as a makeshift morgue as bodies were dug out of the rubble or washed ashore.
A set-up crew that had arrived at the venue to get the ring ready for the wrestlers was forced to stay there for the first couple of days after the quake.
"The building didn't get taken out, but unfortunately they had to sleep in the same room as the bodies of the dead," Arneill said.
With the immediate danger of the quake and tsunami over, the threat of large-scale radiation leaks from damaged nuclear reactors has hung over Japan for the past weeks.
Japanese have reported radiation had been detected in tap water in Tokyo. It has also made its way into food, including raw vegetables and milk.
"It was the radiation that scared me the most. It wasn't under control yet when I left and it didn't look like they were going to get it under control," Arneill said.
With his wrestling tour cut short and the ongoing uncertainty over the nuclear problem, Arneill arranged a flight home.
"The whole experience was fantastic. The training there is second to none," he said.
"I'd go back again in a heartbeat."
Arneill, who lives in Tampa, Fla., plans to spend at least the next several weeks with his siblings and his mother at their home in Merritton.
And while a return trip to Japan isn't in the books in the immediate future, Arneill will be stepping back into the ring soon in Niagara.
He's scheduled to perform with several of the wrestlers he used to train with at Fight Club Canada in Niagara Falls on April 23.
"It's like a homecoming show. I'm really looking forward to it," he said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story first appeared in the St. Catharines Standard on Wednesday, March 23, 2011.