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Light planes and vehicles sat among the debris after they were swept by a tsuman

Eyewitness to Japan’s quake

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news Brainerd, 56401
Brainerd MN 506 James St. / PO Box 974 56401

Jeff Zernov was in line waiting to board his flight at the Tokyo airport when suddenly the ground beneath him started swaying. 

For a moment, the Brainerd fishing entrepreneur and inventor couldn’t grasp why it felt as if he were on board a boat — at the airport.

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“I was at the counter giving the girl my ticket to board the plane and I felt some movement and I thought, well, it must be windy here,” Zernov recalled. “All of a sudden it got rockier and rockier. It almost felt like I was on a boat. The walls were shaking, people were falling to the ground. It was so violent you couldn’t stand up without holding on to something.”

Zernov was interviewed by phone Friday afternoon while he waited at the Portland, Ore., airport trying to catch a flight back to Minnesota. He was in Tokyo after wrapping up a 10-day business trip to Asia when the magnitude 8.9 quake struck Japan. 

Zernov said as the first quake hit, he quickly moved to the nearby jetway because he was worried that the multi-story airport was about to collapse. He and other passengers were able to board the flight but the plane wasn’t able to leave for five hours until the runway could be assessed. Zernov said the pilot kept the passengers on the plane because the airport terminal, all highways and rail systems were shut down and buildings were burning in Tokyo. 

The plane was the first to leave Tokyo after the quake, said Zernov. No other planes were moving at that point and the airport terminal was still shut down. 

It was an 8-1/2-hour flight from Tokyo to Portland and Zernov said he didn’t grasp the enormity of the quake and tsunami until after he started watching the news at a lounge at the Portland airport. 

“I knew this was bad, but I didn’t understand just how bad it was. It was crazy there,” said Zernov. “It’s so far out of your life experience you don’t even know how to process the data. It is fun to be able to say I was there.”

Zernov wasn’t expected to return home to Brainerd until around midnight Friday. The delay in Tokyo meant he missed his flight from Portland to Minneapolis. He had been traveling since 2 p.m. Thursday when he left Beijing. 

Zernov said he had e-mailed his wife, Paulette, from a lounge at the Tokyo airport shortly before he headed to his plane. He said she was frantic after learning about the quake and knowing he was at the Tokyo airport when it struck. She didn’t hear from him until many hours later after he landed in Portland. 

Zernov said he usually flies to Asia three or four times a year for business and about 25 percent of the time he’s experienced delays because storms. About 18 months ago he formed his new company, Dragon Hunter LLC. The company designs outdoor recreational products that are then produced by pre-qualified vendors in Asia.  

Zernov has 17 U.S. patents to his name and more than 100 successful product launches, according to his company website. He is most known for inventing Zercom Marine and Aqua-Vu underwater cameras. 

In the mid-1970s, Zernov helped Al and Ron Linder launch In-Fisherman magazine. He left In-Fisherman in the early 1980s and founded Zercom Corp., later known as Nortec, a contract electronics manufacturing firm in Merrifield. While chief executive officer at Zercom, Zernov started a subsidiary company called Intercon One. That business designed and manufactured precision video products and cables for the medical industry and Zercom Marine, manufacturer of sonar and marine electronics. 

Zernov then founded Nature Vision Inc., which created the Aqua-Vu underwater camera in 1997, leaving the company a couple of weeks before he founded Dragon Hunter LLC.

JODIE TWEED may be reached at jodie.tweed@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5858.

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