This is the first of what will be a series of posts about our earthquake experience.
April 16, 2016
The day of the earthquake was just another ordinary day…actually, it was off to a rather extraordinary start. But, the good kind of extraordinary. That morning I was in the kitchen making my first ever batch of crab cakes… when someone knocked on the door to sell us live lobster, caught just the night before. If memory serves me right, we paid something like $10 for all of it! We ate like kings on a pauper’s budget that day.. and thank the earth for that, for little did we know that it would be the last time we ate anything more than rice for the next 6 days.
That afternoon, Monkey took an unprecedented 3 hour nap. I was frustrated that this left me home with the kids, while Carlos went to watch the soccer game for the “kids” that he has sponsored. He has volunteered many hours with these young, local and poor families. They work various odd jobs around the community. They struggle to help support their families on a few dollars a day. On a morning, not long ago.. amidst a conversation about soccer, Carlos learned that these young men were being denied entry into a local soccer tournament because they didn’t have matching shirts/uniforms to wear. They simply could not afford to pay $2 per shirt. It took him about a nano second to decide that he would provide them with the uniforms.
Needless to say, their participation in the tournament that day was a milestone for them, us, and the community. None of us knew that this would be the last celebration for awhile.
That evening after the tournament, not more than 30 minutes after Monkey woke up and Carlos returned home.. the earthquake happened.
We were all so fortunate to have been together in that moment. We sat outside on the sidewalk, me holding Monkey, Carlos holding Peanut.. and the dogs at our feet, on their leashes. We watched the street lights flicker..and commented to each other that maybe we won’t have power tonight. (It’s not uncommon for that to happen every couple of weeks around here)
But then the earth shook, bricks started falling around us, and we struggled to rise from our chairs..finally we stumbled to our feet and ran in the direction that Carlos pointed. Away from the buildings and light poles. In the chaos, both dogs pulled free from their leashes. Dante returned immediately with our urgent cries, Joey bolted in the opposite direction. We spent the next several minutes searching for him, and calling for him. The people around us were crying and screaming, calling out the names of their loved ones. A sobbing, elderly woman grabbed me and hugged me… and although I couldn’t understand her words, I knew when she kissed the heads of our children.. that this stranger was simply grateful for the safety of them. As she released her grip, I saw behind her..a woman and a baby close to Monkey’s age. I presume, her daughter & grandchild.
After this time, Joey returned to our side…shaking and frantically running in circles. We had to pin him down to get his leash on.
Then, we gathered ourselves together and took a seat on the concrete wall across the street from our house. We needed to take a moment to make a rational plan. It was hard to think admist the panic & chaos around us. Within a matter of moments, the world fell silent as EVERYONE fled the area amongst the mass hysteria. We found ourselves alone, with the exception of 3 other people- neighbors from a few houses down. It was very dark, and dusty and eerily silent. In the shadows, we could only see piles of debris and rubble, streets split at the seams, utility lines & poles dangling through the intersections.
After some time, we came to the conclusion that the best option would be to start walking in search of somewhere safer for the night. Somewhere away from the buildings, in preparation for the inevitable aftershocks. And walk we did, in the dark…carrying our children, pulling our dogs through the remnants of our neighborhood, and the next.. and the next. There seemed to be nowhere to go. Nowhere to stop. No one around. So we just kept walking.
The destruction was hard to look at, after just a few moments into our trek..I stopped looking. It was too real to see the buildings reduced to gravel, beds hanging from broken windows, water pouring from broken cisterns. It was too much to imagine where those people were, and how close we were to being under the rubble ourselves. The rest of the way, I looked at my feet, only to see where I was stepping. I didn’t want to see the rest.
After about 5 KM, we came to a busier street/intersection. Suddenly the silence was broken again by the mayhem of people running, screaming, begging the drivers of passing cars to take them away from there. The lights from the congested vehicles lit up the horror of what had just happened. The beds of trucks were filled with too many passengers, but no one could be left behind. We, too, decided to hitch a ride when we saw a pick up passing by with just 3 people in the back. They slowed down for us, to help us load our kids and dogs into the bed of the truck. We climbed over the tail gate and then made room for 3 more people, and 2 more after that. A little way down the road, another couple asked if they could fit. So 14 people and 2 large dogs later, the truck sputtered and struggled to climb the hills. We all rode silently as we passed by buildings, condos, & homes with sirens and flashlights, construction trucks…frantically digging to rescue trapped people from the beneath piles of rubble.
A few more kilometers down the road, we came to a stop and climbed out of the truck near a park. A park converted into a refugee camp of sorts, filled with people huddled on the ground, beneath the trees… anywhere they could fit. A couple hundred yards away we came to a noisy parking lot filled with the roar of generators bigger than cars, lights, nurses, doctors, and beds. Patients were being hooked up to IVs and being bandaged under the bright lights. I later learned, that the people being treated there were the overflow of the already full hospital.. barely an hour or two after the earthquake.
We walked several more kilometers, into the hills…before we finally found a space that we could sit. It was a small concrete platform, an area that I believe was the foundation for that home that hadn’t been built yet. I huddled with the kids on the ground, trying to help them relax and maybe sleep. Carlos stood guard over us with the dogs. We were in an unfamiliar neighborhood. It was dark. We weren’t sure if we were safe here from “bad” people. But, we knew we were safe from falling buildings. And then it started to rain and we were in an open, unsheltered lot.
We knew we couldn’t stay there. But, where should we go? Back to our neighborhood? We started talking about what we had seen there, what places would be a good place for the kids to sleep. We couldn’t go into our house, it was impossible to see if it was safe or how much damage was in the inside. But at least knew that the neighborhood was “safe” and we remembered a little outdoor food hut that was still standing, and at least had a roof.. even though it was open to the elements.
We started walking again.. in the dark, in the rain, through the broken streets. We knew we had a very long walk and we talked about how grateful we were that we are in the physical shape that we are in. This is one of those times in life that you can’t prepare for…but, that we have always prepared our bodies for. We knew full well that if we hadn’t been so diligent in our daily lives about taking care of our bodies, that we never would have been capable of walking those 10-15+ kilometers in the dark, in the rubble, carrying our kids, pulling our dogs. It was exhausting, hard physical work.. but it wasn’t impossible. We were capable.
We arrived back to our neighborhood sometime just before midnight. Carlos bravely entered the house, to grab the cushions off the couch just by the entryway. We laid them on the concrete, underneath the roof of the food hut, removed the kids wet clothing, and put them to sleep.
It was a restless, sleepless night for us. We jumped up from the ground and went running from the hut on several occasions that night…reacting to the strong aftershocks. We talked so much about how and why we were spared that day. We talked about how much we love eachother and how glad that we could rely on one another in a time like this. We watched our children as they slept, our hearts aching with the unimaginable, awful possibilites of what could have been, and yet full with the gratitude of life, the possibilities of a future.
I finally dozed off just before dawn, when my insides stopped shaking and I could feel the hope of daylight just around the corner.
*more to be continued**
I will write several more posts over the next week, a continuation of our story and how the following morning & days unfolded.