SENDAI, JAPAN—The hangars are flooded with seawater. Under the water, hundreds of tons of muck washed in by the tsunami cover the floor. All the equipment kept at ground level—which, at aircraft maintenance, is just about all of it—is ruined, some of it swept away. The customers' aircraft are floating in the hangars and, with one remarkable exception, all wrecked. The buildings have just been thrown about by one of the most powerful earthquakes in recent history. The runway is submerged and, for all anyone knows, may have been smashed by the earthquake. There is no power. All employees are marooned on top of the administration block, surrounded by water, lucky to be alive.

From that lamentable scene on March 11, 2011, the Sendai Maintenance Center of Japanese aerospace group Jamco is nearing full recovery. When Aviation Week visited earlier this year, its hangars were as full of aircraft as they had been on that terrible day when almost 16,000 people died, including more than 1,000 in the airport district—but not one from Jamco Sendai.

How It Happened

After the earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. the staff, following emergency procedures, assembled in the car park of the facility, which is 1 km (1,100 yd.) from the coast. The public phone system was down and, without power, they had no access to television, so they knew nothing of the tsunami. Crucially, general manager Noriyoshi Isogami was at Jamco's head office in Tokyo, and he had a working television. Using the company's internal communications system, which has a battery backup power supply, he called Yukio Ida, deputy general manager of the facility, telling him of the pictures of the gigantic wave and urging him to evacuate. That would mean telling everyone to get into their cars and drive inland.

Ida says he looked at the road. It was jammed with the cars of people who had also somehow heard or guessed that a tsunami was coming. He wondered whether they could get inland far enough and fast enough.

Isogami held his phone against the television so Ida could hear the emergency broadcast warning that the tsunami was 10 meters (33 ft.) high. “How high do you think our administration building is?” Ida asked. About 15 meters. Yet it hardly seemed safe to enter a 40-year-old building that had just been shaken by an earthquake. “I thought about the people who had died when buildings had collapsed in the [recent] Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand,” says Ida, reliving the day. Looking again at the jammed road, he made his decision: everyone to the roof of the administration block.

Jamco had 144 employees and 10 customer representatives on site that day, and all stood on top of the building as the tsunami smashed ashore and flooded the airport, sweeping along cars, boats, buildings and aircraft—and people calling for help. Also on the roof were 27 students from an aviation college next door whom Jamco's people had beckoned upstairs. As the tsunami roared across the shore at 3:34 p.m., Jamco's people thought they were finished: The foam of the wave stood twice the height of the trees near the shoreline. But by the time it had crossed a canal and invaded the airport, it was down to 2.6 meters. The office block held.

Some people from the airport region who died were drowned in their cars as they tried to flee. But many others miscalculated by staying.

It had been a cold and windy day, so the hangar doors at Jamco's facility were almost closed. As a result, the water could flood in but without too much violence. An expensively equipped Japanese government Bombardier Q400, ready for delivery and sealed up with doors closed, floated serenely, perfectly dry inside. Without even engine damage, it was later inspected and, after careful cleaning of some exposed parts and replacement of others, returned to service. The other aircraft all have been scrapped or will be.

Jamco Sendai's people spent the night in the freezing administration building, not knowing what had happened to their families, and their families not knowing what had happened to them. The next day they were still surrounded by water but, being in aircraft maintenance, were well equipped to get to dry ground: they rowed inland in aircraft emergency rafts.

Recovery would be hard, but first Jamco had to decide whether there would be a recovery. The company considered whether to shut the operation, rebuild it with a different maintenance capabilities, or put it back to the way it had been. It chose the latter.

Not only were tools in the hangar immersed in seawater. The accessory shop was on the ground floor, too. There the water destroyed equipment for working on landing gear, propellers, avionics, electrical systems, sheet metal and emergency floats and life rafts, says Ariga Yasuyuki, assistant manager of the engineering center. Nondestructive testing equipment itself suffered a very destructive test.

The facility's air-conditioner compressors, water supply and fire-fighting equipment were knocked out. The partial opening of the main doors helped equalize the water height inside, ensuring the hangars did not bend or burst, but doors and walls across the facility were smashed.

The best news, apart from the survival of the entire staff, was that the computer server and all documents, including manuals and records, were high and dry on the second floor of the stout administration block. They suffered no significant damage.

With the decision to put the show back on the road, Jamco Sendai ordered equipment and cleaned the site. Half of the facility's people worked on the recovery; the others were temporarily sent to other Jamco divisions.

The government cleaned surrounding public land, such as roads; but Jamco had to find its own earth-moving equipment, amid frantic demand, to clear its site. Luckily Jamco had a good relationship with a local construction company, so within a few weeks it had begun moving the muck—along with cars, aircraft and even buildings that had been swept onto the site. The crew worked with shovels, mops, brushes, sponges and buckets to get everything spic and span, as an aviation facility, especially a Japanese one, should be.

They had no electricity until May, when Jamco obtained a generator, and no public electricity until June. For the first month, work was repeatedly interrupted by aftershocks. If that was not unnerving enough, 60 km away engineers were struggling to control the Fukushima nuclear power station reactors.

Recovery planning, reviewed by the civil aviation bureau, was simplified by the decision to rebuild the facility as it had been. Managers just needed to order equipment that was the same or similar to what had been destroyed. Delivery of the equipment was not always as easy as ordering, however, because electricity in East Japan is supplied at 100 volts and 50 hz, an uncommon specification. U.S. manufacturer Tronair needed three months to supply hydraulic stands that could use that current.

Securing electrical transformers and rectifiers was a bigger problem, because operations all over the region were ordering them to the peculiar specification. Jamco Sendai could not get one delivered until September.

“By September, we had finished almost all reconstruction,” says Yasuyuki. They resumed maintenance activity in October. The facility is not exactly as it was, he adds. Some activities have moved to Tokyo.

Japanese workforces are famous for their team building and bonding—“all for one and one for all,” as Ida puts it. Since the disaster, he says, Jamco Sendai's people have been more closely knit than ever.