February 27, 2010 at approximately 3:35 a.m. the bed rocks. I wake up. I put my hand out to Bert: “Did you….” The walls shift to the right. The bed rolls …”feel that?”
Bert leaps straight from sleep and grabs the 21 inch T.V. from its stand. It is as if it was only a toy.
“It’s an earthquake,” I scream. He slams down the T.V. on the bed and races into the living room.
The gut clenches. Fear is a building that moves and shakes and trembles and floors that undulate. We are on the topmost floor, the sixth. The ceiling seems to be moving in concert with the walls. That seems good, somehow.
Pure terror grips me and I know viscerally that we will die. Extraneous thoughts intervene: Wills are made and our friend Maureen, knows that if something happens to us, to give the envelope to Harry. Oh son, oh darling, your parents are going to die here in Santiago. We love you. We love everybody!
Crash. Sounds of breaking glass. Bert cannot find his footing as the floor does another dip and shimmies as it falls back in place. He bellows: “We have to get out.” There is a complete discrepancy of feet as the floor rises, falls, dips and jitterbugs in a danse macabre. More sounds. This time an eerie cacophony as the entire building screeches in protest. The curtains race to the left of the track then race back. The lights go out! Another crash! Terror made more terrible in the darkness. There is bewilderment as the building seems to belch while steel and concrete rolled then shifted and I know it will crack wide open. Another heave. A waltz of death. How long can this last? A lull, but no peace nor release from fear.
Shouts. The security guard is knocking on doors. Terremoto! “Get out, get out”. We open the door and he screams at Bert: “Put on your pants”. It is all in Spanish.
“What is he saying?” Bert asks.
“He says you are to put on your pants and we are to leave the building”.
“I told you we should get out. Come on.”
Confusion. Is this a dream? I seem to watch myself put on a robe. I want to go back to bed but Bert grabs my hand. We get to the door and use the light from my cell-phone to go down six flights of stairs.
People are milling about. Some are crying, some are swearing never to go back indoors, all are bewildered and frightened. Pandemonium reigns. We go across the street to the hotel lobby to look for three Canadians we met at breakfast.
“Go outside!” is the shouted instruction. We obey. “There they are”! Our new best friends were looking for us as we were looking for them. Jim is off to the left near an unoccupied home which is said to belong to the Allende family. Why? He thinks it is low enough so when it falls he will not be under it! We join him. Wife is nowhere to be seen. We ask for her. Jim tells how she wanted to be properly dressed. Then even as he panicked she declared she had to brush her teeth. He told her to go ahead but when they came for him to identify the pieces and asked him what happened he would just tell them: “She had to brush her teeth”.
Then mother in that ‘Mother’voice that was a mixture of love, fear and exasperation for a recalcitrant child said: “Can you imagine, as I rushed towards the stairs I saw her brushing her teeth!” We roar with laughter, the merriment heightened to near hysteria fueled by the recent panic and still present fear. Linda appears. Teeth brushed, dressed, clutching her toothbrush and cosmetic bag.
I hear one young woman telling her husband in no uncertain terms that she is not returning to the apartment. When he tells her she had to return she says: “After what just happened I do not have to do anything I don’t want to ever again”! It sounds funnier in Spanish.
Still no lights. Sound of a bullhorn. Providencia (our community) Security is giving information about first aid stations, social service help, medications as needed and to watch out for thieves and vandalism. Amazing as this is within a about 15 minutes of the earthquake. We are outside. We are told to wait for at least two hours before going back into the building.
We mill about, we talk and decide we could go back even though it is only one and a half hours since the big quake. There are no strangers tonight, only people sharing a traumatic event. I look around and observe that people wear the weirdest things to bed or dress in a most amazing assortment when panic strikes. Then I look at myself. I am in a very nice area of Santiago, on the street, in a Chinese silk robe over a cotton nightgown, two different shoes on my feet and oh my goodness, no bra. Bert who combs his hair at least fifty times a day has a lock falling over his eyebrows and tufts of hair at the back that looks like a backwards cock’s comb, kitty corner to his left ear.
We go back to the apartment still in the dark. There are constant tremors. No T.V., no lights, no water. At 5:05 a.m. the lights flicker on and then off again. Fear makes you do strange things. I know there is broken glass and in fact I think all the dishes and glassware must be lying broken on the floor, but Bert gets busy in the kitchen. I plead with him to come back to the bedroom where things are all in their places except the T.V. which is askew at the foot of the bed where Bert dropped it.
Bert is reporting from the kitchen: “There’s no glass on the floor. Oh, here is a tomato” “Ah! I’ve found three apples.” “There is another tomato and the plantain and a banana…….”. All this he is doing in the dark crawling on all fours. He says he has a headache and he is giving me one as I remember the terrible crashes I heard. I think he is not going to die under a heap of rubble but from loss of blood when he steps in the broken glass. It is unreal.
Finally at 6:15 a.m. the lights come on, the water is on and the living room T.V. comes on. The earthquake is the news wherever you look. This is the ultimate breaking news. I reconnect the bedroom T.V. after my personal Superman puts it back on the stand and now we have both televisions going. Bert is right, the crashing sounds were two wine bottles on the living room bar falling and breaking, some bottles and the flower arrangement falling in our bathroom and the pots and pans crashing against each other as the building rocked and rolled. Everything else is intact. I can hardly believe it as I notice the wall to wall mirror in the bathroom is totally whole. Not a crack in it.
It is now 7:30 a.m. so we decide to get properly dressed for the day. The building does a shake, rattle and roll and Bert shouts: “Oh *#^! It’s another one. Don‘t tell me I have to walk down and up those stairs again!” I am thinking I need to put on a bra. It is a big aftershock. We shower and dress.
Our Brazilian friend got through at 8.a.m. He has been trying to reach us. Finally his cell phone is working. He tells us how he and his wife, were terrified and are still shaking. We have a hysterical laughing fit as he tells of a co-worker living in his building who ran down 15 flights of stairs, scaled two walls, leapt over a fence, ran around two swimming pools only to get to the front lobby and realize he had left his keys in the apartment and he was naked except for very tight, tiny briefs. He was the comic relief for the crowded foyer as they opened the door for him. Then there were the four who were driving around Santiago and when asked where they were going said: “We don’t know. We just want to go home to Brazil”!
Bert, a Chilean, a Peruvian and I, all guests, acted as restaurant crew, setting out trays of food as the chef fills them and clearing the dishes. The restaurant staff is en route trying to get to work using any means available. They do get in and in no time have everyone settled and eating, all of us extraordinarily grateful to be doing that so very normal, everyday thing – having breakfast. There are no strangers here. Only friends.
I feel the earth shake. The hotel receptionist calls it a tremor. I look at her with sarcasm dripping from every pore. Soon comes a news report that there has just been a 5.6 aftershock. I look at the receptionist with an “I told you so” look. I am to learn that I have become a human seismograph. I feel every tremor, every aftershock. I feel the slightest movement of the earth! I am to learn that there were 17 tremors in the first 24 hours but I felt 21. My number is the correct one, I am positive.
I breathe. I am breathing. Life is good!
A few facts
The epicenter was in Central Chile approximately 100 Kms south of Santiago
It was measured at 8.8 on that famous Richter Scale (Hah! More like 8000 on my scale)
Sadly, approximately 500 died most near the epicenter.
The tsunami warnings were issued but did not turn out to be as devastating as feared.
Massive infrastructure damage of bridges, overpasses and highways. The airport was closed.
It was felt as far away as Buenos Aires and Sao Paula (Poor those engineers fleeing to Brazil). It lasted approximately 3 minutes. Eternity is three minutes long. Who knew?
The meander: I have a great admiration for President Michele Bachelet. Within half an hour of the earthquake she was helping to staff the Central Emergency Post, calling for calm, being a leader and reassuring her people. Chile has one of the highest anti earthquake building codes in the world. Our friend the engineering expert tried to explain how the buildings are on rollers or some such thing. Some things you do not need to know, right? Oh, yes. In 2011 we spent the winter in Chile again.