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9/11, Fukushima and COVID-19: Valencia man shares from front lines of history

Gunsalus is photographed at the roll out of Boeing’s fist 787 Dreamliner in Everett, WA, on July 8, 2007. Courtesy photo.
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Every 10 years or so, fate has cast James Gunsalus as both a journalist and protagonist. 

Gunsalus sat watching from his desk in the Manhattan Bloomberg News offices Sept. 11, 2001, as his colleagues ran in, covered in dirt and dust, to jump on camera and share the tragic updates as the Twin Towers fell.  

His jaw hung open as he watched the horror unfold on the monitors.    

On March 11, 2011, while sitting at his desk in the Tokyo Bloomberg news office, Gunsalus got motion sickness and took his keyboard under his desk after the fourth largest recorded earthquake in world history jolted Japan for a total of six minutes.  

“You could see the other buildings shaking,” said Gunsalus. “These guys were all over the outside of the building on scaffolding, and you can see them just running like ants, running into the buildings, trying to climb down … and then all of sudden there’s tile starting to drop from the inside of our building.”   

His jaw was once again agape, if only for a moment, before he forced himself to a state of composure. 

Now a respiratory therapist, Gunsalus really wasn’t shocked March 19, 2020, as Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a historic health order shutting down the state and confining millions of Californians into their homes, he said. 

He was focused and prepared.   

Gunsalus is photographed while working at Henry Mayo Newhall hospital during COVID-19. Courtesy photo.

Confronting the ‘reality’ of 9/11 

Gunsalus’ first simultaneous brush with history and tragedy came while he was working near the epicenter of an attack that would irrevocably change the course of American history.    

He watched his editor assemble a team of reporters to head down to Lower Manhattan while footage of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers played on every channel. 

“My executive editor was like, ‘Everybody get to work, hit the phones, you know who to call,’” recalled Gunsalus, who said he was a junior writer working as a business wire reporter for Bloomberg News at the time. “Somebody actually was already down (at Ground Zero) and he came back to the studio covered with dust, and he was on television.” 

“I remember having my hand in front of my mouth and realize unconsciously, like seeing myself, but my jaw is hanging open,” said Gunsalus. “And then all of a sudden you kind of get aware of yourself, it’s shocking, and you’re like, ‘OK, back to reality.’” 

Gunsalus said he immediately started calling his sources working in and around the World Trade Center.  

None of those who he regularly worked with to cover financial news had died, he said, but everyone had a story to tell in the coming days.  

Photo of Gunsalus’s desk while reporting during The Great Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami. Courtesy photo.

March 11, 2011 

Now working as an editor for Bloomberg and having moved to Tokyo to cover Japanese financial news, Gunsalus sat at his 23rd floor desk when the March 11, 2011, earthquake — a 9.0 magnitude on the Richter scale — began.  

The Great East Japan Earthquake catalyzed a tsunami wave that, at its maximum, was 133 feet tall and traveling 435 mph. It headed 6 miles inland, killing more than 15,000 people and causing three meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.  

“I guess I kind of found myself just watching TV, with my jaw slacked open,” said Gunsalus. “And then there was like a woman screaming … that sent a fear spike down my neck.” 

Tiles began to fall from their ceiling and Gunsalus remembers taking his keyboard under his desk. The woman who screamed then jumped under his desk with him.  

“She’s like, ‘I don’t want to die alone,’” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘Alright, take your stuff.’”  

Gunsalus, his female colleague and his team of reporters would eventually get out of the building and to safety. They would spend the next few months attempting to juggle coverage of both the earthquake, the damage from the subsequent tsunami and the resulting disaster at Fukushima.  

Gunsalus photographs the television during the earthquake. Courtesy photo.

COVID-19  

In 2013, Gunsalus and his wife came back to the states in order to take care of his father who had been in a car crash. (He mentions as “a side note” that his plane ride home Nov. 1, 2013, was stuck circling the airport because a mass shooting at LAX had left one person dead and seven people injured.) 

It was during this time, caring for his father, that Gunsalus gained an interest in the medical field. He decided to leave journalism to pursue a career in respiratory therapy, which would once again put him on a collision course with history.  

By 2017, Gunsalus was working at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital and was assisting in the treatment of patients during a notably bad flu season. He said his past experiences as a journalist, coupled with his time during flu season, prepared him for the beginning of the pandemic.  

Although no longer a reporter, Gunsalus said he is still a news junkie. And when the rumblings about a deadly disease originating out of Wuhan, China, creeped into the wires, he began to prepare the hospital for COVID-19, a disease that primarily attacks the lungs and what he described as a “slow motion catastrophe.”  

Gunsalus stands with one of his respiratory therapy machines on New Years Eve during one of the worst surges in the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy photo.

While the rest of the world was still debating if the disease was worse than the flu, Gunsalus said he started ordering excess beds, ventilators, and capacity to fulfill the anticipated oxygen demands; when told by people around him that COVID-19 would “blow over;” he responded with, “I don’t think so.”  

“Having been in situations before, and seeing my editors manage a crisis …that kind of came to mind,” said Gunsalus, when discussing why he had helped the respiratory therapy department at the hospital begin preparations as early as they did. “I was like, ‘What’s the first edge of the cliff, what’s the second edge of the cliff, what’s the third edge of the cliff, what’s the worst thing that could happen.”  

During surges in the pandemic, Gunsalus says he often worked 12-hour days, five to six times a week in order to ease the load on staff while also managing the night shift. During normal times, within Henry Mayo’s ICU, there are 17 or so beds; during COVID-19, that number jumped to over two dozen in the COVID-19 ICU and roughly 60 additional beds for just COVID-19 patients. And through it all, Gunsalus has assisted with everything from ordering supplies, to planning his department’s shifts to intubating patients.   

“Journalism by nature is a spectator sport … I was on the sideline,” said Gunsalus, when asked about what it felt like to be at the center of all these moments, but to have switched from being a reporter to a health care provider. “I would say that with (COVID-19), I wasn’t on the sideline, I was not an observer. I was a player … I was making sure people had what they needed and maybe getting us through this.”     

He enjoys the more active role he plays in helping others, but he’s still mindful of the role fate can play in our respective tales. 

“If you’re living life, stuff is going to happen to you,” Gunsalus said over a phone call on Friday, just before heading into work at Henry Mayo. He then jokes, “Every nine to 10 years, and then something about March or the number 11.”   

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