Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

My family was caught in Chile quake nightmare

Police officers search for victims after an earthquake in Curanipe, some 389 km., about 241 miles, southwest Santiago, Sunday, Feb. 28
Bruno Sandoval, right, and Aileen Marquez look at a damaged vehicle after an earthquake in Pelluhue, some 322 kms, about 200 miles, southwest of Santiago, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010. A 8.8-magnitude earthquake hit Chile early Saturday.
Residents search for belongings to recover from destroyed houses by the sea in Pelluhue, Chile, some 206 miles (332 kilometers) southwest Santiago, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010. An 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck central Chile early Saturday. (AP Photo/Roberto Candia)

Northern Ireland man Patrick Nixon has lived and worked as a journalist in Chile since 1999. Here, the former Belfast resident described the horrifying experience of one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded

Having lived and worked as a journalist in Santiago, Chile since 1999, I’m well aware of what an earth tremor feels like. They happen so frequently that people often do not comment on them unless it is a particularly strong one. There are different types of tremor: ones that sway from side to side, others that feel like a wave and yet others that are more like a thud.

The earthquake that measured 8.8 on the Richter scale in the early hours of Saturday morning felt like a combination of all of the above.

This time it was different; there was strong shaking from the very beginning with little build up, accompanied by a rumbling sound from the depths of the earth that I’d never heard before.

Dazed but immediately aware this was a serious tremor, my wife and I jumped up, grabbed our children from the next room and positioned ourselves under a door arch, which is supposedly one of the strongest parts of the house structure.

Crockery and glasses tumbled out of the cupboards in the kitchen and smashed on the floor, books toppled off the shelves in the playroom, the fridge shifted forward and a lightbulb exploded, briefly illuminating the kitchen before plunging us again into darkness.

As we huddled tightly together, nobody uttered a sound, we were just waiting to see how long it would last and wondering if a wall or something else would collapse. This was a real earthquake.

When it ended there was no noise outside, just silence, like a state of shock.

We lit candles, all electricity was down. But phone lines were working and we checked on family. My father Larry, a former Belfast Telegraph journalist and government press officer, and his partner — both from Newtownards — were over on holiday and were sleeping in a back room. They were OK. My dad was grinning with excitement, Ann was white with shock, not believing what had happened.

Only in the light of day and by remaining glued to the TV on Saturday did the full extent of the |disaster become apparent — buildings collapsed, coastal towns swamped, bridges collapsed and cars upturned, people crying for lost loved ones. We’d got off lightly with a few broken plates.

In Santiago, 200 miles north of the epicenter of the earthquake, much of the city appeared unscathed, just the streets unusually empty.

Supermarkets were closed but there long queues at gasoline stations. Tremors have continued to keep everyone on edge.

The reported death toll went from an initial 70 to 708 within 24 hours. The country is in a state of emergency, people are glued to 24-hour media coverage.

The government is acting |swiftly and is much better prepared to deal with this than the Haitian government was.

But, sadly, the greedy side of humanity has emerged. Looting has begun, some people just grabbing milk and bread, others carrying plasma TVs.

The army has been sent in and a curfew declared from 9pm to 6am. .

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