On Oct 10, 1986, a brief but violent earthquake occurred in San Salvador. My husband and I and our two sons were living there at the time. The recent horrendous earthquakes that have 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 is a continuation of Part I, based on his notes of what it was like for a US Embassy teenager living through a natural disaster in a foreign country.
As I looked around, I saw rescue workers standing on top of the remains of crumbled buildings, carefully removing the debris by hand. They had not brought in heavy equipment because they were still hoping to find some survivors trapped in pockets and they did not want to shift the wreckage inadvertently and possibly injure or kill someone still alive in the rubble. It had already been a week, but some survivors were still being found and, when that happened, a jolt of energy, like a lightning bolt, would shoot through first responders who would rush over with stretchers, tools, and first aid kits.
Near to where we stood, I glimpsed a cloud of blonde, blue-eyed, sunburned faces sitting under a tent. Two men, dressed in olive drab army fatigues, sat in chairs looking at the field of wreckage around them. On their shoulders I saw the British Union Jack.
These men belonged to a British rescue team that had been in the neighboring country of Belize just a week ago. They were sent to El Salvador at a moment’s notice. At their feet lay two German Shepherds. The dogs looked tired and listless. I approached the men, said hello to them, and asked if I could pet their dogs.
“Better not, mate,” answered the older of the two. “They’re resting right now. Best to leave them alone.”
“I understand. Sorry about that. They must be very tired, but they don’t look sleepy,” I replied.
“Oh, they’re not sleepy. They’re depressed.”
“Depressed?” I asked.
“Yeah, mate. These are rescue dogs and when they are around death for long enough, they get depressed. When we arrived, they were excited whenever we found someone in the wreckage. But now? We aren’t finding too many live ones and it is getting to the dogs.”
I thanked them, shook their hands, and moved on. The fact that the dogs would grow depressed by the rising death toll was a jarring realization – one that has stayed with me all these years later.
Mrs. Ruelas suddenly appeared. I swear that woman was a saint who was everywhere all at once. She asked my folks if she could borrow me for a minute. She wanted me to accompany her to a store in the vicinity to see if we could find some clothes for some of the Mexican rescue workers who were on the scene.
These were the famous “Topos” (Moles) who a year before had been national heroes when the big quake hit Mexico City. For the most part, they were all short and slim. These brave men and women would enter the collapsed buildings, crawling on their stomachs through any space they could find, searching for survivors.
Their jobs were made doubly dangerous by the ongoing aftershocks, which could suddenly shift a column or a slab of concrete, trapping them or crushing them in place. They had flown into San Salvador just hours after the earthquake happened, wearing only the coveralls they had been wearing at their fire and rescue stations back home in Mexico City.
Mrs. Ruelas and I wrote down their names and asked them for their shirt and pant sizes and asked them if they needed anything else. With our shopping list in hand, we headed to Siman, a department store a few blocks away.
The store had sustained some damage but it had opened its doors again a few days later, though there were few shoppers there on that day. We walked in and quickly began looking for shirts, pants, underwear, and other articles. A sales lady helped us put the items on a counter as we worked through our list.
As the pile grew, one of the store managers came over, clearly curious about why we were buying so many of the same items in different sizes. After explaining to him that we were there to buy clothing for the “Topos” his face lit up. He called his sales people over and began telling one after another to get a dozen of this item or that item.
As his team scurried about the floor, he picked up the phone and called someone further up the food chain. After speaking into the phone for a few minutes, he hung up, came over to us, and told us that there would be no charge for the items we were taking. After all, he told us, if the Mexican “Topos” had come all this way to help El Salvador (and risking their lives in the process), the least they could do was make sure that the “Topos” had a few changes of clothes they could wear when they were crawling inside the remains of the fallen buildings.
The store manager then asked us to come with him and we followed him out of the store and down the street to a pharmacy. He knew the pharmacist by name and quickly explained the situation. The pharmacist then called to some of his staff and they began to gather shampoo, soap, deodorant, toothpaste, tooth brushes and all manner of toiletries.
When everything was bagged up, we headed back to the department store, accompanied now by the pharmacist. From the department store, we emerged with bags and bags of clothing, along with about a dozen sales people and the manager. So, with our entourage, Mrs. Ruelas and I made our way back to where the exhausted “Topos” had their operations post.
Both the store manager and the pharmacist stepped up, introduced themselves, and presented the “Topos” with our bags of supplies. All the sales people stepped up, shaking the “Topos” hands, hugging them, and thanking them for what they were doing to help. The sales lady who helped us originally even gave one or two of these heroes a peck on the cheek, tears of gratitude rolling down her cheeks. I could tell the “Topos” were touched by the display and noticed that Mrs. Ruelas looked a little misty herself.
Over the next week, I did other things like sort through shipments of food and supplies and make care packages for many of the 200,000 families that were left homeless by the quake. But what will always stick out in my memories of that time will be the fearless “Topos” and the store manager and pharmacist who stood up to help those who had come to help them. To a 15 year-old that was a lesson in humanity.
I learned that, when faced with death and unimaginable disaster, people will step up to help strangers. They will risk life and limb to save someone they have never met before. It was that day when I saw the good and the unselfish side that lives in each of us, as well as the limitless spirit of cooperation that we are capable of bringing forth in each of us when the time calls for it. It was a lesson that I still carry with me, almost 40 years later, and which I hope to carry with me until the day I die.
[Note: El Salvador is a small Central American country. In 1986 its population was approximately 5 million. The 1986 earthquake caused between 1,000 and 1,500 deaths, 10,000 injuries, and left 200,000 homeless.]