Snapshots of an earthquake survivor TRUE STORY

The following is a letter from a friend of a friend who is living in Los Angeles, Chile. He and his family survived the massive earthquake that rocked that country a few weeks ago. His description of what happened is vivid and chilling.


To our extended family and many friends,


To paraphrase Mark Twain, "The rumours of my death are greatly exaggerated".  Our family is alive and well and living perhaps 150 km from the epicentre of one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded.


We are so thankful to be alive and uninjured. It is truly astonishing to me that so few people died during this massive seismic event. Our best wishes and condolences go out to those who lost family members and those who suffered serious property damage. It is said that some 2 million people have been affected by this massive earthquake. Many have lost their homes. Others still have no water and electricity, although this situation improves daily. The ones who appear to have suffered the most were the people who lived along the coastline near Concepcion, where tsunamis swept nearly everything away.


Our experience, by comparison, was rather trivial, but terrifying nonetheless. Some family members asked me to provide an account of the experience and so this is an attempt to summarize what we have experienced. I didn't have a camera handy to record everything and so I thought a few written "snapshots" might suffice. The snapshots do not exist so please use your imagination.


Snapshot One (Saturday February 27 at 3:34 am)


Here I am, lying on my belly beside our bed in our house outside of Los Angeles, Chile. I am unable to move. The room is shaking violently to my left and right in what seemed to be six inch horizontal movements. The whole room is bending, creaking, and groaning. I can hear things falling to the ground all around me. Somehow my wife made it to our daughter's bedroom. She must have had wings to do this. I can hear them screaming but there is nothing I can do except pray:"Please, God, make this stop". I positioned myself beside our bed, in a position they call "The triangle of life" because if beams or roofs fall, they will fall on the bed and on the floor, creating a triangular area where you can survive such an onslaught.


The quake went on and on and on and was very violent. They say the quake measured 8.8 on the Richter scale at the epicentre and 8.5 in our city. It lasted for between 90 seconds and 3 minutes, which is much, much longer than most earthquakes. It seemed to be interminable.


More than the shaking itself, the sound was terrifying. Imagine the creaking timbers of a Spanish galleon as it tries to weather an Atlantic storm. Add the low rumbling of a freight train underfoot. To top it off, imagine dozens of people smashing wine goblets against a stone fireplace. And yes, there was lots of screaming. Put it all together and you have a ghoulish symphony that makes the soundtrack from The Exorcist seem like child's play.


Snapshot Two (3:37 am)


Here is a picture of my wife, my daughter, and I hugging in the doorframe of our daughter's bedroom. I am shouting at my daughter to put her shoes on now as broken glass is everywhere. My wife is gathering some clothing as I take our daughter downstairs and out the front door.


Snapshot Three (3:45 am)


Our family is huddling in a vehicle in the dirveway in the light of a full moon. My motley appearance reflects my state of mind: I am wearing pyjamas, a blazer, formal shoes, a long polar fleece jacket, and a baseball cap. Someone hands me a glass of wine to settle my nerves. I am trying to listen to the radio station for news but as all electricity has been cut, the backup generators of the stations soon give up the ghost. Only emergency radio stations are operating. It is clear that this was a major quake. I remember telling my wife that two thousand people might die.


Snapshot Four  (4:30 am)


My brother-in-law arrives with his girlfriend. They report that the streets are full of cars. Everyone is trying to escape town because they fear that the large Ralco dam will break and flood the city. (Thankfully, this did not happen .. at least not yet.)


Snapshot Five


Here is a picture of the inside of our house. Many, many breakable objects in the house have been smashed. Everything is on the floor. The smell of all the stuff in broken bottles fills the air, an odd mixture of wine, vinegar, and expensive perfume. The house itself is structurally sound but cracks in every wall show how the house bent back and forth with the force of the quake. Thank goodness the house was constructed with earthquakes in mind. It is still hard to comprehend that everything that I regarded as terra firma - including massive wooden beams and steel reinforced concrete - is actually very flexible indeed.


Snapshot Six


Here is a picture of our big, concrete swimming pool. Curiously, almost half the water is gone. It is hard to imagine the violence of earthly movements that would create waves that would result in such a water loss.


Snapshot Seven


Here is a picture of our extended family, cousins and all, who have all congregated at our house. We have moved sofas outside and are having a drink by candlelight. Our tents, which would be our new homes for the next week, are in the background. The aftershocks continue. One aftershock, which registered 6.5 on the Richter scale, was almost as strong as the Haiti quake.


Snapshot Eight


Here is a shot of the whole gang raising a cheer. Electricity (and with it, running water) has just been restored on the third day after the quake. We don't have to carry water from the pool to flush toilets or wash dishes. When our bottled water supply ran out, I must admit, we had to drink boiled swimming pool water.


Snapshot Nine


Here is a picture of yours truly trying to buy groceries. I brought along a nephew, who is almost two metres tall, as my personal bodyguard. All the supermarkets were closed. We were told all the provisions are lying on the floor. I finally found a small minimarket on the dodgy side of town. The proprietor was selling whatever food he had that was still saleable through the iron bars that protected the front of the store. Seeing that I was a gringo with some ready money, he let me inside the store, whereupon I bought whatever he would let me buy. Explaining that I had 15 people staying at my house, he let me buy more than $100 worth of necessities. Mission accomplished.


Snapshot Ten  (late one night at about 2 a.m.)


Here we are, huddled in our tent, trying to sleep. As my wife and daughter doze away, I hear many gunshots in the medium distance, perhaps a few kilometres away. Clearly there is some sort of gun battle going on. Desperate people of any nationality will do desperate things. I fear that a criminal gang will descend on our house in search of valuables and cash. Some of my neighbours fear the same because they are discharging shotguns into the air from time to time to show any would be hooligans that they mean business. Not able to sleep and fearing the worst, I retrieve our 9 mm semi-automatic handgun and load up a magazine with bullets. Although I am a pacifist at heart, I know that I might be forced to use this powerful weapon to protect my family.


Snapshot Eleven (March 8 at 6 am)


Here is a picture of yours truly, in mid air between the bed and the floor, eyes wide open.  I have just spent my first night back in my own bed and was sound asleep when a major aftershock hit. I was into my shoes and grabbed my glasses within what appeared to be nanoseconds. We have had more than a hundred aftershocks since the main quake (including one as I write this). Some of these aftershocks are rated between 5 and 6.5, which are full scale earthquakes in some areas. People don't talk about the psychological effects of the aftershocks but they certainly exist. At a minimum, you become highly sensitized to any type of vibration and find it difficult to sleep at night. The aftershocks go on and on. It is like you are living your life on the edge, waiting for the next shoe to drop. Will the next tremor be another big one or will it pass? One never knows.


I certainly wish that none of you ever have to experience what the people of Chile have experienced in the last 10 days or so. Please send out your prayers to those who have lost loved ones and/or all their earthly possessions.


Chile is bouncing back relatively rapidly compared to other earthquake zones around the world. It has an operational government, plenty of experience in handling such emergencies, and a relatively strong commercial infrastructure. The extent of the damage, however, far exceeds this small nation's capability to restore normal conditions in a timely manner. Clearly it will take years to fully recover from this series of quakes and tsunamis.

Now it is a question of surviving once the quakes stop. The supermarket shelves have been picked bare. Bread is relatively hard to get and so we have resorted to baking our own. I am uncertain about food supply lines as many bridges on the one and only superhighway (the Panamericana) have collapsed. Gas stations have only recently reopened after after a period of closures and rationing. Most drug stores are still closed. Our telephone and internet service is non-operational; given the massive repairs required, the phone company may take weeks or even months to restore the lines. We cannot sent or receive mail as the main post office is now a condemned building. Perhaps half the businesses in our city are closed. The others are hindered in their operations. The major pulp mills are not operating and it may take weeks to get them back into operation. A curfew is still in effect, meaning we all have to be off the streets by 8 p.m. All in all, life is slowly returning to normal. The important thing is that we are alive to tell the tale.

The good news is that such major quakes happen only every 20 to 25 years (1938, 1960, 1985, 2010). I am now looking forward to another long, peaceful period in a wonderful country.


All the best, Dave

Uploaded 03/10/2010
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