Those were the longest and scariest three minutes of my life. Not that the fear stopped only after 3 minutes, it has continued on for days, albeit not as strong, but just as present.
My husband, dog and I had just moved into a new apartment in Santiago, on the 11th (and top) floor of a building in Providencia the previous weekend. We decided to travel to Viña del Mar, a coastal city approximately 2 hours west of the capital city of Santiago, Chile to visit my in-laws for the weekend. We normally go about once per month and hadn’t had time to travel for a while, plus we had plans to say goodbye to a friend moving back to Europe permanently and see the new baby of another friend. It was to be a busy weekend.
We left Santiago on Friday night after packing and loading the car. When we arrived in Viña around 10pm on Friday February 26th the streets were packed—it was the last weekend of the famous International Song Festival of Viña del Mar and thousands of people were in town to attend the concerts. Plus, it was the last weekend of summer vacation here in Chile and people were squeezing in every last minute before the vuelta to reality.
When we arrived at my in-laws, an apartment on the 2nd floor of a building in the “plan” of Viña (the plan refers to the flat part of Viña). The plan was to watch the Festival on TV for a bit before going to bed. However, I was exhausted from a long weekend and had forgotten my glasses in Santiago. Thus, once I took out my contacts, which were killing my eyes, I could no longer see anything past the length of my arm. So to bed I went. Christian watched Festival a bit and then joined me in bed with our beloved puppy, Dulcinea.
Now, let me give you a bit of background on my experience with Chile’s seismic activity. I felt my first tremor in 2006 about 2 months after my study abroad program started. I was in the 2nd story of our program’s house in Viña and thought it was so cool to feel a tremor. I mean, this was completely new to me as in Colorado we have no tremors. I remember the director of our program telling everyone to calm down and explaining how tremors are versus earthquakes. She said that if it is going to be an earthquake, the tremor starts out small and starts to build strength. She also said that most tremors only last a short time (maybe 30 seconds) so if the shaking lasts longer than that, one should prepare for the worst. At the time she explained all of this, I didn’t quite care. I enjoyed the little shake and never thought that I would be part of an earthquake in a million years. It wasn’t until many months later, when I was serious with Christian, that I began to worry that these little shakes every once in a while could turn into something more. I think it was the fear of losing this person I love so much or not being with him when a disaster struck. So pretty much ever since then, I worry a bit when there are tremors. At night, I wake up Christian when I feel them and once they pass we go back to sleep.
That is exactly what happened this past weekend around 3:30am on Saturday February 27th, 2010. I started feeling the apartment shake and woke up Christian. Dulcinea was at our feet and woke up and started barking. Christian started to hug me and wait for the tremor to stop (as it normally would), only it didn’t. Instead, it got really strong. The furniture appeared to be possessed. Dulcinea jumped onto my lap shaking more than the ground beneath us. I thought a whole was opening up in the earth and would swallow us whole. I couldn’t believe what was happening and wondered when it would stop. Christian tried to hold up the shelving unit in the room where we were while also holding on to me and Dulci. In hindsight, we should have put ourselves in the door frame, but we stayed in the bed hoping the nightmare would end. It was already dark, but the electricity went out and that is when Christian knew this was serious business. I honestly don’t remember much of what I was thinking other than "holy shit". Plain and simple.
Once the shaking stopped we got up to see if everyone else was ok. My sister-in-law was crying and my in-laws were in bed scared as well. However they were alive and without injuries, just as the three of us and that was the most important thing. I couldn’t see anything thanks to not having my glasses. It was almost a full moon out and thus some light entered through the windows. Christian immediately ordered everyone to get dressed. We had to get out of the apartment and get to higher ground asap. We had no idea where the epicenter of the earthquake was and didn’t want to run any risks of possible tsunamis hitting us. I managed to put in my contacts in the dark, find my clothes and necessary items and get Dulcinea bundled up with two sweaters. My body was shaking even though adrenaline was running high. I could barely stand, but had to in order to get our stuff and go. We took some blankets, toilet paper and bottled water with us and headed towards the car. There are designated escape routes in the event of tsunamis in Viña which were developed after the tsunami in 2004. We followed the route which took us up to the hills of Viña, and were joined by many other cars. Instead of stopping we decided to head towards Santiago, hoping to find some place along the highway with no poles, trees and more open space. We ended up at the police station right outside of Curauma which had an open parking lot. It was a smart place to go. Not only did we not have to worry about poles falling on the car, the police station had a generator and therefore lights and bathrooms in addition to the information that the police themselves could give us.
We stayed in the car far from the city until daylight struck, around 7:15am, when we decided to head back to the apartment. It was almost 4 hours after the earthquake had hit, we knew the epicenter was near Concepción some 200 miles south and that there was no danger of a tsunami according to the confirmations by the Chilean army. We had felt several aftershocks while in the car, but they felt like a big truck had driven close by the car. We heard on the radio that there had been some strong ones, I guess the car absorbed most of the movement.
As we got back to Viña, we could see roads that had large cracks in them, roof tiles or other parts of houses that had fallen off and right by my MIL’s apartment, the streets were flooded as the water pipes below ground had broken. The electricity was out and the phones were dead. The water that came out of the pipes was now brown. The majority of things had been thrown to the floor in the apartment. Vases broken, a sliding glass window on the balcony fallen over but not shattered thankfully, lamps on the floor and all the plants on the balcony dumped over (see pictures below). Only material things lost. Nothing compared to the lives that could have been lost.
Photo by me
We tried to call our family members who were dispersed in various cities that had been hit—Rancagua, Linares and Temuco. I also tried to call my parents despite the fact it was 4am in Colorado. We found out our family in Rancagua was ok. We had no word from Temuco or Linares and it was a joke trying to call internationally. Duclinea stayed in my arms for the rest of the day. We were both on edge, as was everyone else, especially when an aftershock rippled through the apartment, causing us to jump to our feet and our hearts to race. By 10am, it felt like 8pm at night....we were exhausted. We hadn’t slept since 3:30am, we hadn’t eaten and we had no idea what to do with ourselves at that point...