Quote of the moment

"I have to tell it again and again: I have no doctrine. I only point out something. I point out reality, I point out something in reality which has not or too little been seen. I take him who listens to me at his hand and lead him to the window. I push open the window and point outside. I have no doctrine, I carry on a dialogue." Martin Buber

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Terror in Terremotos- Santiago, Chile February 27, 2010

It's been nearly one week since the world's fifth largest earthquake occurred in Chile at 3:30 AM, February 27, 2010.  I had just barely fallen asleep after staying up until 2 AM preparing for Kristina's Welcome to Chile party, thinking I'd have everything done, could sleep in and actually be able to enjoy the festivities. Our daughter arrived in Santiago Thursday, last week, 3 days prior to the first earthquake with plans to start work with Bechtel Mining and Metals that coming Monday. Shortly, as I drifted to sleep the bed suddenly bounced up and down in short, quick shakes as though someone was using a jackhammer under our mattress. The rapid up and down shaking was the precursor to what seemed to be an unending series of violent spasms that set our apartment building swaying deeply from side to side. From our opened windows I could hear the cracking and grinding of buildings and hear the explosions coming from the electrical transformers across the capital city.  As I ran out of bed trying to make sense of this unnerving, unceasing, and ever increasing level violence my first and immediate thought was "Terrorist attack!" having lived in the Washington, DC area when the Pentagon was attacked during 9/11.  I quickly dismissed that thought as memories of our life in California flooded back (Loma Perieta, 1989; San Fernando, 1971) as our building was now forced to endure unending thrashings.

All four of us, Jorge, Andy, Kristina and I met in the office area outside our bedrooms as we tried to make sense of it all. Sammy, our dog, fell out of my arms and ran to hide under the couch in the living room. His yelp as chairs fell and doors were slamming open and shut with the force of the quake made me worry for his life. More and more the building swayed as we heard the crashing of our belongings and those of the apartment dwellers about us. For us it seemed never ending, we wondered as the building swayed deeper and deeper and the ceiling molding fell about us was this it? Praying to God to please make it stop, we discovered later the quake lasted three minutes, the time of a song; short in simple terms of daily life-- a lifetime in a moment of fear.

We hung onto the door frames as we had done many years ago in California.  (According to FEMA: Doorways for shelter are to be used only if it is in close proximity to you and if you know it is a strongly supported, loadbearing doorway). Now we know that was not the best thing for us to have done. We should have stayed in bed holding on and protecting our heads with a pillow since none of us were under a heavy light fixture that could fall (If that is the case for next time, we need to move to the nearest safe place).

And then it stopped.

Wonderfully ever-ready Jorge was able to get together flashlights for all of us as we tried to make our way through the darkness. While the building and the earth beneath it were no longer swaying our hands and voices shuddered with nervousness and fear. I ran to find Sammy crouched and shaking under the sofa and check on the birds to see if they were fine. The bird cage had moved three feet from the wall but was still standing. We took a quick assessment of the damage in the apartment: chandelier ripped from the ceiling and tossed into the corner, chairs upended, dishes on the floor, lamps broken and smashed brick-a-brack.  Amazingly there were corners that seemed untouched while others were in great dishevel. We could tell the direction of the movement by the way our belongs were laying across the floor.  Each room had cracks in the wall with breaks in the plaster.

We quickly got dressed. Helping Andy get his belongings together we realized that his bedside lamp was tossed upon his glasses, breaking the lamp and snapping the temple joint from the frame. He would have to endure this event without his glasses. We dressed in long sleeved shirts but didn't take our coats not realizing the chills we'd feel from the shock of it all coupled with dip in the early autumn temperatures.  Andy remained remarkably calm through it all exclaiming after it was done, "Look at this mess!" His simple and astute summation made us laugh and allowed us to gather ourselves in better order as we made our way to the back door to start the descent.... of our 16th floor apartment.

As we slowly walked down stairs we noticed that most of the residents were remaining in their rooms. Many of our neighbors are elderly and barely made the walk from the elevator to the park on a quiet summer's day. How would they evacuate the building now?

We agreed we'd meet in the park but worried about the possibility of the trees toppling over or breakage from the neighboring apartments. We waited outside wondering what was the true extent of the damage, not only here but across all of Chile. We were not sure if our apartment building was stable enough or had suffered structural damage. With the strength and endurance of the quake plus the extensive cracking in our apartment we felt that it had a good chance of receiving significant damage. Soon we could hear ambulance and fire engine sirens as they sped down Apoquindo. Family members from neighboring communities rushed to the apartments to check on their elderly parents, family members and friends residing here. We decided we'd stay where we were and remain outside in the park.

It was a curious opportunity to meet our neighbors, to share our fears, our horrors and then laugh at the little things as we tried to return to calm  and regain a sense of normal. We remarked at how lovely the full moon was-- now that we could stand still in one place long enough to actually see it. We recalled how it rose remarkably early in the afternoon's twilight over the Andes and now how tranquil it stood glowing down upon us. We joked with one neighbor who was to join us at Kristina's party that we really know how to throw a "Welcome to Chile" party and that we should change the theme to a recovery party. One neighbor suggested we join her and her sister rescuing her, offering us a couch and floor space at her sister's simple, one floor home. We thanked her but decided to remain behind to see what would be needed at the office and with our friends and neighbors.

Jorge recalled our new car was in the garage and noted that many residents were pulling theirs out. We decided to spend the night in our car to listen to the radio and have some warmth. The continued conflicting reports of tsunamis caused us even more concerns. We lightly napped through the early morning darkness jolting upright with each aftershock that followed.

With sunrise we climbed up the stairs to our 16th floor apartment to inspect the damage and determine our fate. As novices to quakes of this strength we perceived our damage as extensive, but thinking back on it now it was really minimal in comparison to what others have had to endure.  Nonetheless we opted to join with other expats and the Bechtel Crisis Team at the Ritz Carleton a few blocks away. We packed a few items, feed the birds and fish, scooped up the dog and made our way once again down the 16 flights of stairs and drove to the hotel.

Joining the other gringo refugees at the Ritz was almost a surreal experience. As one friend shared it was a scene out of the movie Titanic, most especially for her. She and her husband were residing at the Times Suites, in an extended stay hotel. They woke up with the roof-top pool flooding the stairwell. They quickly grabbed their belongings, walked through the waterfall that was once their stairwell and moved into the Ritz. As they entered the lobby someone was playing the piano, a large buffet filled with food was being served and the Chilean wine was flowing gratis to all who passed through their portals.

Many of the hotel's guests were tourists wondering how they would be able to make their way home now that the airport and roads leading to it were closed due to earthquake damage. English was the language of choice in this microcosm yet the voices heard were most distinctly different with accents originating from America, England, Canada, Australia, New Zeland, and some their English thickened by home languages of foreign locals including Chile, China, Norway, France.

The Ritz also sustained some damage to the upper rooms as their spa and swimming pool sloshed over its edges and through the floors. But despite their troubles, whether structural or ones their staff faced back home, they were incredibly comforting and accommodating.  The Ritz managed to secure the operation of the staff elevators sharing their use with the nervous guests. ALL of the staff remained accommodating and reassuring throughout the entire weekend (never mind that their families and lives were also in turmoil). The staff was able to locate on their satellite CNN in English and we remained glued to the "tellie" as we not only watched but felt the events unfold before us. With a sense of the macabre we set up a tsunami watching party with glasses of Chile's best red in hand snuggled securely in the bar's club chairs.  Little did we realize the impact this would have on the country's wine country- located in the epicenter.

Many of the employees at one of Bechtel's job sites have family in Concepcion, the epicenter. Bechtel management staff quickly set up their crisis management and assistance teams once they learned that nearly 600 of their employees remained missing.   (Happily as I type this all have been located). Two other wives and members of the Human Resources Office and I set up resources for Bechtel Spouses including a blog site and a face book fan page.



A special note needs to be made regarding another most accommodating and wonderful staff member in our lives, our nana, Angelica. We had tried to call our nana but were unable to get through, of course with all the communication lines down. Yet, despite all that had occurred with her own family (many of whom at the time were not accounted for) she appeared at our apartment that afternoon to come and assist us with clean up and determine if we were going to continue with our plans for the Welcome Party, our concierge informed us later. We did make contact with her later and suggested she not come in until mid week. She is here now, radio headset secured in her ears and still anxiously awaiting word from some of her family.

Since then we have had many vigorous after shocks that have kept us all on edge. I have used Facebook as a means to reach out to friends and keep in touch with those who continue to be involved in the search of their families. This weekend, one week after the initial earthquake Chile Ayuda Chile holds their telethon. Cruz Roja, Hogar de Cristo, and Un Techo para Chile have begun their recovery efforts. We will be continuing with our clean up- knocking of falling plaster, setting up our emergency boxes in earnest and getting our minds and hearts ready to say good by to our daughter as she travels on Tuesday to the jobsite for 20 days.

1 comment:

  1. Donna, Jorge, Kristina and Andy,
    I have never ever worried about friends as I did about you all when the news of the Chile quake hit. Our common listservs all went into the "Has anyone heard from Donna?" mode and you could hear a national collective sigh of relief when you emailed us! Your journey sure took an amazing turn! Let me know if there is anything we can send, or that we can collectively gather for the people of Chile. Lovelove, Mary

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