On Oct 10, 1986, a brief but violent earthquake occurred in San Salvador. My husband, our two sons and I were living there at the time. The recent horrendous earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria took me back to remembering that 1986 quake.
I spoke with my son Hendrik, and he has such vivid memories of that experience, I asked him to jot down some of his recollections. What follows are his notes of what it was like for a US Embassy teenager living through a natural disaster in a foreign country.
I remember being in school when the earthquake hit. I was at lunch, sitting at a covered picnic table in the area just outside our school cafeteria. I recall sensing that the ground was moving, slightly, as if someone were shaking their foot on the bench next to me. I looked around and saw that no one was fidgeting or moving around in a way that would make our table or bench shake. I glanced up and saw that the cafeteria windows were vibrating. I remember thinking, “are we having a tremor and is this going to get stronger?”
As if Fate decided to answer my silent question, the covered picnic area began to shake, jolting up and down violently. I felt, more than heard, the sound of the quake as it hit. My ears were filled with sudden, alarmed shouts and shrieks from other students who jumped up and rushed out into the open or dove under the tables as we had been taught in earthquake drills at school.
The panicked sounds and the sudden, chaotic eruption around me lasted only seconds and dissipated once the ground stopped shaking. All that I then heard was nervous laughter and animated commentary. Tremors and small quakes were not uncommon in San Salvador. After all, the valley where the city stands was once called “El Valle de las Hamacas” (the Valley of the Hammocks) by the indigenous people who lived there before the Spanish came.
Glancing at my watch, I realized that the school bell had not rung, telling us that lunch was over and that it was time to head to our next class. Some of us decided to make our way back to our classrooms, but as we approached the main campus building, school administrators stood outside, telling students not to enter the building. Frantic parents pulled up to the school in their cars, looking for their children.
The mother of one of my friends appeared, shaken and out of breath, thanking God that she had found us. She told us the earthquake had damaged a lot of nearby buildings and that the city was without electrical power. She gathered us up like a mother hen and herded us into her minivan. As she drove us to our respective houses, we could see the chaotic street traffic around us, which was unusual for an early afternoon.
My younger brother and I arrived home wondering aloud at how serious was the situation. Walking into our house we didn’t think it was too serious, as we could see very little damage. Some framed paintings and pictures had fallen off the walls, but we saw no physical damage to our home. My mother and father arrived some time later and they told us that the earthquake had been quite serious, flattening parts of the city and damaging homes across the rest of that country.
That night we pulled the mattresses and linens off our beds and placed them in the foyer of our front door, ready to run outside if strong quakes continued. We slept fitfully that night, fighting back fear and the bursts of adrenaline that would course through us every time the ground moved. Once we even jumped up and rushed out the front door in our pajamas, fearful that the trembling aftershocks we felt would swell into a second thundering quake.
The next morning, tired and with our nerves worn thin, my parents informed us that they were needed at work to coordinate recovery efforts. We would be staying home for at least the next week until the situation had come under control.
Well, earthquakes aside, my brother and I had some difficulty containing the glee we felt at learning of our unscheduled vacation.
Two days later, my mother informed us that all of the “U.S. Embassy kids” would be gathering at a house just down the street later that afternoon. We were all to meet with a psychologist to discuss our fears and concerns about the current situation.
The house where we were meeting was normally used by the U.S. Agency for International Development as a guest house for personnel that were visiting from Washington, D.C. When we arrived there, however, we found that it had become a makeshift work area where Embassy personnel were meeting to help coordinate the U.S. Government’s earthquake response efforts. We met the psychologist and shared how we felt about the situation. Some of us put on brave faces; others broke down into tears as the tension was suddenly released through our conversation.
After our meeting, one of my parent’s friends, Mrs. Mary Ruelas, pulled me and one of the other kids aside and asked us if we could help out the next day with sacks of embassy mail that needed to be sorted. We agreed and promised to be back the next morning.
That began what would become two weeks of unexpected volunteering. We were just teenagers, but we eagerly offered to help in any way we could. We understood that our parents were working around the clock with their Salvadoran counterparts, coordinating the waves of incoming humanitarian supplies and relief workers that were flooding the country as the hours went by.
For the next two days we sorted mail and refilled coffee dispensers. On the third day, someone from the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA, a U.S. agency like FEMA, tasked with foreign disaster response) asked me if I could help man a radio station that had been set up in the guest house. Thrilled to be doing something besides sorting mail, I readily agreed and spent the next couple of days receiving messages and reports from across the country and passing them on to embassy personnel.
With every “over”, “copy that”, and “loud and clear”, I was filled with a sense of satisfaction knowing that I was doing something to help this country which was my temporary home, and its people, who had become my friends and extended family. Some of the OFDA guys came in and thanked me and told me I was doing a great job. One even brought me a hot coffee and offered me a cigarette, which I accepted and placed behind my left ear, like I imagine some character in a Hollywood blockbuster might do. I didn’t smoke but kept that cigarette behind my ear as I drank cold coffee and manned my little radio station.
It was on the sixth or seventh day after the earthquake that I got a chance to see the real damage that the city experienced. My father had come by the radio station asking if I wanted to accompany him downtown to see the damage. One of my teenaged peers took over the radio station and I jumped into the car with both Mom and Dad. I was excited to see what all the adults had been talking about.
I was not prepared for what I found. Up until then, I had been sheltered safely in the USAID guest house, working my little radio station and playing at being a grown up in some disaster movie. Until that moment, I had not known the extent of the horror and tragedy that the earthquake had unleashed.
When my father and I arrived in his car, the city center looked like it had been bombed. Rubble, garbage, and wreckage were strewn all around, covered in fine concrete dust. Buildings that just a week ago stood 10 stories tall now lay in a heap of pancaked floors. Twisted rebar peeked out of slabs of shattered concrete. I saw the remains of tables, chairs, office supplies and personal items strewn about on the piles of what had once been offices and restaurants.
As I opened the car door and stepped out into this strange hellscape, I was immediately struck by two things. The first was a large pile of dirty, crumpled mismatched shoes that lay in a heap on the sidewalk.
The second was the smell of death that assaulted my sense of smell without mercy. It washed over me like a thick, green fog and I reflexively raised my hand to my mouth and nose as I tried not to gag. One of my father’s coworkers walked up to us and handed us surgical masks to cover our noses and mouths. And just like that, in that moment, the little action movie that had been playing in my head all week was shattered, like the glass and debris that crunched under my feet.