My nerves have not completely settled even a day after the earthquake, but I find that writing and talking about it are the best catharsis. After the harrowing events of the night before, I thought it would be best to write down everything I could remember about the sequence of events; I used my plane ride from Miami to DC to write in my notebook- previously filled with details, thoughts, and minutia about our travels – to record every detail I could remember of those two minutes and the events before and after the earthquake.
Excerpted from my Peru Travel Journal, pgs. 107 – 114:
8/16/07 – 10:04am
A few minutes can change a life. And a few hours of reflection on those minutes can influence even more…
Kris and I sat in the food court at the Lima Airport for four hours – he was reading a paperback novel, and I was diligently knitting on my scarf. I took a few breaks to buy water, go to the restroom, and Kris read on, sitting with our two suitcases and our backpack. I told him that I was planning to call my parents around 6:30 [Peru time] because I knew that they would be finishing up dinner and ready to talk. Around 6:15, I headed to the international communications center in the Lima Airport. I initially had a problem connecting, but finally reached my mother on the second try. We talked for awhile, and she handed the phone to my dad – I was telling him about the amazing geology of the Andes [he is a geologist] and about some of the animals we saw in the jungle. We made plans to get together on Friday night to share stories and some downloaded photographs. He handed the phone back to mom and I told her about adventures in the Amazon… time was flying by and there was so much to say.
The first rumble came around 6:39, and it did not completely register in my mind what had actually happened. I continued talking to mom, thinking it was a hurried landing of one of the large jets on the tarmac. Then I began to hear some screams, and I realized right away what was happening. My small telephone cubicle was completely glass, and I yelled into the phone “Oh my God, mom! Mom, I think it is an earthquake!! I have to go -” and I quickly looked around to see all of the other people beginning to scream and run out of the doors to the large structural pylons marked with a large S – for Seismo – meaning that they are strong enough to hold up through an earthquake. There were two pylons outside the door of the center, and I ran for the far one with less people. There were many small children huddled around the base, and I reached for the top of the pylon, holding on with my hand. The quaking did not stop. I figured (like we all did, presumably) that it would be a small tremor and over in a matter of seconds. Yet, it went on and on – what felt like minutes. I don’t remember what I heard, but I saw a policeman with a reflector vest come and begin to usher people toward the stairs. Many people began to scream and panic. A mob moved towards the stairs. An elderly Catholic nun was moving very slowly in front of me, and I feared that she would be trampled. I grabbed her hand and put my other hand through the crook of her arm. I hurried her down the stairs as I felt the brunt of the crowd behind me, pushing forward and forward to the doors of the airport. We were halfway down the flight of stairs and the quake was still rumbling, almost a visible wave in the air. Ceiling tiles and sheet rock began to fall from the ceiling, and the screams grew louder. As I held the small Sister, we rushed under the large electronic marquee, which was swaying and knocking dust and sheet rock onto the floor. I was so scared it was going to fall. We quickly rushed out of the doors of the airport away from the large glass facade.
Outside the doors, it was a sea of screams and cries. I looked over and saw one of the ceiling tiles fall onto a man, but he kept on moving. It appeared to hit him on the shoulder. It was not until we were outside that the earthquake actually stopped rumbling.
I stayed surprisingly calm, thinking that Kris, who was in the food court (while I was in the call center) would be out any second. The two locations were not that far from each other, and I thought the main doors would be the best exit for everyone. I scanned the huge crowds of people for his light brown hair and orange jacket. More people streamed out of the building, becoming more and more hysterical. Still, Kris did not come. Panic did not set in yet. I paced up and down the bus lanes on the street and went back to wait near the doors. Realizing that an aftershock could happen, I moved away from the structure and stood on a curb about 5 meters away from the door.
I saw a woman in a wheelchair and immediately recognized that she and her family had been seated at the table next to ours in the food court. I ran to her and blurted out something about “the man in the orange jacket- table next to you – reading a book”. I could see that they did not understand me. I attempted to repeat the key words in the little bit of Spanish that I knew. Hombre – tabla – libro and using hand signs to fill in the rest. There was some recognition and a nod from the mother, but then my voice broke and the tears started flowing. The young daughter stepped forward, probably about twelve years old, and looked up and nodded, saying “the table”. I said “my husband”, touching my heart.
The mother was speaking so quickly that I could not understand her at all. She grabbed my hand and lead me further away from the building. The woman looked at me and said many things that I did not understand. Then, I thought I heard her say “Deutsch?” and she repeated it. I said “Deutsch? Jaja!”. Finally, we could communicate! She said she saw Kris, the man with the orange jacket and that he was okay. The daughter held my hand and began stroking my arm. I was beginning to get quite nervous, as I could not see him anywhere. The daughter also spoke German, and I could understand her much better, since her mother had a very thick Spanish accent in her German. I was breathing deeply and wringing my hands, both from the cold night and the nerves. I looked at the girl and asked her name. “Meine name ist Rosara.” she said. She held my hand tightly and said “Wir suchen” [we search]. People were yelling and screaming the names of their missing family. One woman was screaming at the top of her lungs, making herself hoarse.
Rosara continued to hold my hand as I described Kris. Er tragt eine Orange Jacke. Brün-Blonde Haare. I could not remember all of the descriptor words, and I was mixing English, German, and Spanish, trying desperately to be understood. She nodded and repeated. I wrote down Kris’s name on a small note paper and she took the paper to the policewoman near the entrance. She came back to me translating what the police woman had told her: everyone was out and safe, but the other side of the airport was evacuated to the tarmac and landing strips behind the airport. “Er is gut. Esta bien. Okay. Alles in Ordnung. No nervous”. The more she repeated the words, the more I began to believe it. We just needed to wait. He was fine – he was just on the other side. I briefly thought of our bags and all of the things there, and that did not matter at all. I thought of my mom and how scared she must be. I did not care about anything else other than finding Kris, knowing that if we were together, it would be okay.
Up and down the street and my knees were wobbly. No sign of him and I felt faint and weak. Rosara steered us to the curb and we both collapsed there, watching the people around us. She rubbed my arm and told me that she was here to pick up her uncle who is coming from Germany for a visit. Her stepfather is German, and she grew up learning the language with him. She told me how the earthquake had shook all of the windows in the food court, not breaking them but visibly shaking them, and how the policeman grabbed her grandmother’s wheelchair and yelled that the elderly were the first ones out. All of the other people were told to go out the back door. She reassured me that Kris was okay, and we just needed to wait. I told her about the nun, and about the phone call to my mother. She told me that her older sister had called and was on the Metro in Lima, waiting to get out, and that some glass windows had broken on the train. I thanked her a million times. “Danke, du hilfst mich“. She told me that earthquakes in Lima are common, but not as long and as big as this one.
We sat on the curb for a long time, watching the people, hearing the sirens, and seeing the disaster crews move into the airport. They were wearing hard hats and looking for anyone still inside the airport. I did not see any injured people, but I did see ambulances. People were huddled in small groups as the wind was whipping up and sending a big chill through everyone.
Standing up to search again, we walked down the long path looking for a sign of Kris. We made the same rounds as before, dodging the taxis, and motorcycles on the streets. This time I heard “LAUREN!” and I looked to see him standing on a curb not too far away. I melted completely, running through the crowd towards him. I grasped Rosara and we ran toward him. I didn’t let go of him for a whole two minutes. “I was SOOOOO scared.” I looked down and he had all of our bags – two large suitcases, my backpack and even my small knitting project. He had the foresight to grab it all and run, calling up some reserve of strength that I did not know he had. I hugged him over and over and told him about Rosara and how wonderful she was. I held Rosara in an embrace and kissed her face, thanking her in every language I could think of. She had kept me calm and quiet, and she was so strong herself for her young age.
I held Kris and did not let go. I saw a young teenage boy next to Kris, and he explained that he had been separated from his parents, but had just found them after searching. I saw the group of nuns, reunited, but was not sure which one was the one I helped on the stairs. Rosara walked around, and came back to say that she had been separated from her family. She had a cell phone and was trying to call them, but the satellites were completely down and phone service was out. She sat down on the curb with Kris and I and we huddled together. I wrapped my scarf around Rosara, who was only wearing a cotton shirt. Kris pulled out a red flannel blanket from the backpack, and we shared it. As we sat there, we felt a very brief aftershock, only lasting a second or two. Rosara finally got through on the cell phone and found her mother on the other side of the parking lot away from the structures. She learned that her sister was fine and everyone in the Metro train was also okay. I hugged and kissed her again before she left to be with her family on the other side of the street.
Nearly two hours had passed since the quake, and my emotions had run the complete gamut: fear, shock, sadness, and finally elation and thanksgiving. Kris told me his story, and he had been surrounded by kind people as well. Everyone came together so well in the crisis. Language barriers did not matter at all. As we talked to other people around us, we heard more and more stories. The nuns that Kris had been with on the other side of the airport came over and hugged and kissed us, giving us many blessings.
The airline and airport crews came together so quickly. They had been well-trained to deal with disaster recovery, and the airport was up and running again within three hours. The backup generator and computer systems allowed us to have flight manifests, and we were able to check in right away. I was wary to go back into the building, knowing that there would be more aftershocks. The next few hours were a blur of standing in queues for immigration, passports, and police control. Each desk stamps something and send you to the next queue. We felt like zombies, and rumors of the damage started to flow in. There was so much speculation about what had actually happened and how big the quake had been. The news is reporting an 8.0 on the Richter scale at the epicenter, and lower outside. Lima’s magnitude seems to have been in between a 6 and a 7. Our flight did take off about three hours later than anticipated. I tried desperately to get to a phone or a computer, but all of the lines were busy, and the main power grid was down. I wanted to let my mom know we were alright. It was not until we reached Miami the next morning that I was able to call her. She said she had been talking with Kris’s mom all night, and they had been praying and watching the news.
The earthquake’s severity seems to be worse at the south of the epicenter. The towns on the southern coast of Peru have sustained much damage, and many people have lost their lives. My heart aches for them. The Peruvian people are so generous and hospitable, and I am so sad that this tragedy happened to this beautiful country.
~My sincere thoughts and prayers to the people of Peru~
Posting will resume soon, and I will share some of the amazing experiences I had in Peru, along with some great photography. Thanks again for your emails and comments. It is so heartwarming to see how much you all care.