My 8.8 Earthquake Experience

My experience of an 8.8 Earthquake in Chile

Today is the 3-year anniversary of the 8.8 Earthquake that struck Chile on February 27th 2010.
I wrote the following experience just days after the earthquake had happened and have republished it here:

Setting: Chile – Saturday, 27th of February 2010 – 3.34am

Either you were soundly sleeping or in the final stages of some hedonistic form of indulgence.

Scene: Santiago, Chile – Our apartment on the 22nd floor.

Even though I had only gone to bed about an hour and a half earlier, for some reason I woke up a minute or so before the shaking started. It’s a habit of mine to wake up a minute or two before tremors, aftershocks and now it seems major earthquakes. It’s most likely to be pure coincidence since I tend to wake up at least 2 or 3 times per night anyway.

So there I was, unaware or the time, trying to snuggle deeper into my pillow when the bed started moving slightly.

Ok, our bed moves a lot anyway so the wife must be rolling over. No, she was totally out to it.

My first thought was, Ok, just another tremor.

Then the bed started moving a bit more. My wife awakens and sleepily asks if it is a tremor (¿Está temblando?).

Then we can hear the rattling of the perfumes as they knock each other in the bathroom. Ok, this is just a strong tremor we thought, no reason to get out of bed since we are used to them.

The thing is, things began shaking a lot more.

OK, this is getting a bit more serious, it’s quite strong now. Let’s get up, you see if the kids are okay and I’ll open the front door to stop it from jamming.

On the way to the door the shaking increased considerably. In my mind it was around 6.5 (I have experienced many tremors/earthquakes so you get used to figuring out).

I got to the door, unlocked it, left it open slightly, turned around, and then the full force of the earthquake came into play.

I couldn’t more forward and had to hold onto the wall to stay up. I looked out the large ceiling to floor windows in our living room and could see just how much our building was swaying (we didn’t have curtains at the time). We are lucky to have an uninhibited view of most of the city though on this occasion that view was scary. I could see sectors of the city blacking out one by one and explosions of light flashing the night sky here and there. When the earthquake reached its highest point and the lights in our own building went out, I thought “This is it! We’re not coming out of this alive.”

I have never been so scared in my entire life. The shaking, the rattling and the creaking of the building heightened the sensation of eminent death. That very moment has scarred me emotionally. For the next year, whenever I entered our apartment at night, the first thing I would see was that same view I had the night of the earthquake and was not the most pleasant memory.

Immediately after the earthquake

The violent shaking gradually slowed down and then eventually stopped. I could finally walk to our children’s room to see if they were OK. My wife had been standing over them the entire time, while supporting herself against the wall, making sure nothing fell on them. Interestingly they were still sound asleep! We didn’t wake them up straight away since we had to get dressed, get together clothes and things for the kids so as to leave the building as soon as possible. After a big earthquake like the one we had just experienced there is a large probability of a strong aftershock soon after so we didn’t want to be in the apartment for it.

We didn’t have a lantern or flashlight so I turned on my laptop and used the light of the screen to help us see a little better. Just in case, candles are not a good idea to use after an earthquake since its naked flame is a risk if there are broken gas pipes nearby. Once we had our bag of essentials ready, we woke up the kids, dressed them and set off down 22 flights of stairs. I carried our eldest son, my wife the youngest and fortunately one of the neighbours on the same floor as us had waited outside our open door so she took the bag for us.

Entering the stairway we were greeted by water running done the walls and down the steps. We found out later that a pipe that feeds the swimming pool on the roof had broken. There were also cracks running down the middle of the ceiling above the stairs (which is only where the plaster had fallen from the joins, no serious structural damage), as well as paint chips and fallen plaster everywhere. Dust that smelt like old concrete also hung heavily in the air, strange since it’s a new building. Before we knew it we had scrambled down the stairs and arrived at the first floor in no time. Many other people had already arrived, some in pajamas, some half dressed and one wrapped in a blanket. Everyone was wondering, how strong the quake was on the Richter scale, where the epicenter was, most likely Santiago we thought due to the strength of the shaking (though in reality not true). The first crackling announcements that could be picked up from an old battery-operated radio in reception mentioned it was a 8.5 earthquake. Later we would learn it was 8.8. We, as well as the rest of the country, tried to contact family and other loved ones to let them know we were safe and to see how they were. Unfortunately all the lines were saturated which added to everyone’s desperation. After what seemed like an eternity we eventually got in touch with my wife’s parents who came and picked us up to take us back to their single-floor house.

We eventually got to bed (or more like got to ‘mattress on the floor’) as the first light of day started appearing to reveal the real damage to the country.

Damage

The strangest thing about this earthquake after hearing and seeing so many different stories and images was that absolutely nothing in our house was broken. Not only that, the only things that fell from anywhere were some papers that were near the TV in our bedroom had fallen onto the ground. There was even an empty bottle of beer sitting near the edge on the kitchen bench that maintained upright. I remember the shaking and it was hard to stay up on my feet, so why didn’t it fall?

We heard that people in apartments above us and below us had lost a lot of things and had a large mess to clean up afterwards. Strange!!! We must have angels protecting us.

In our language school it was the same situation, only a small ceramic souvenir from Colombia had fallen from a bookshelf. Again nothing else had happened.

After all of the news on television and in newspapers about the numerous buildings with crumbled walls, collapsed foundations or just leaning to one side unnaturally (one actually fell over), my wife and I walked the seven levels of underground parking to check our building’s foundations, pillars, walls and ceiling to see whether there was any structural damage. Fortunately there was none whatsoever.

Afterthoughts (not to be confused with aftershocks)

As a consequence of the earthquake two of our neighbours are no longer living on our floor. I imagine the same thing has happened in many other apartment buildings. I don’t blame them. It was difficult for us to return to our apartment on the 22nd floor and we ourselves had even thought of leaving it to live in a ‘normal’ house.

We discovered that some people in our apartment building couldn’t open their doors due to the double locks being stuck which is why you should open the door then seek protection.

I have also learnt that the age-old lesson about going under a table or doorway is actually one of the worst places to be. Ok, it does stop things from falling on you…. unless it’s the ceiling or floors above you. There is now talk of the ‘Triangles of Life’ where you should lay next to a bed or other chunk piece of furniture that is not easily crushed. That way if the roof or walls do fall on you, a small space in the shape of a triangle is formed that ‘protects’ you. Its efficiency is still disputed.

Why have there been so many earthquakes this year? Haiti was first (7.0), then Chile (8.8), then there was one on the border of Mexico and the States the other day (7.2) and now one yesterday in Sumantra (7.7). Mother Earth seems to be mad!

Quick facts

The recent earthquake in Chile has been the 5th strongest in recorded history. (Edit – Now the 6th strongest after the 8.9 one in Japan in 2011)

The strongest recorded earthquake was also in Chile. It was in Valdivia (South of Chile) on May 22nd 1960 and measured 9.5 on the Richter scale.

Check out my other earthquake related posts:
Experiences of other expats in Chile at the time of the Earthquake.
8 out of 10 Earthquakes prefer Chile
How Chileans react during earthquakes

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