Ecuador: Part 2
After two solid minutes of swaying, rocking, and rolling, we felt the trembling stop. The sensation was strange though. While we had sensed that the earthquake had stopped, the building seemed to continue swaying. Nevertheless, with the ground under us becoming a bit more stable, we sprang into action.
Stacy tried calling the U.S. Embassy, but the phone lines were either down or jammed with traffic. I got the two-way radio and handed it to Stacy, and she began calling Embassy Control to check in. There was no response. We were getting more concerned by the second.
From my office window, I noticed that people were gathering in the streets outside the apartment building. The thought had crossed my mind that maybe we should be out there with them. I think that would have been the normal reaction for anyone, but I reconsidered. We had seen tragedy strike before in Tbilisi, Georgia when a magnitude 4.8 earthquake struck in 2002. People were killed outside of their own apartment buildings when falling debris landed on them. We stayed inside.
The response over the radio was slow at first – people were probably assessing their own situations first before calling in. Fortunately, we still had power and an Internet connection. The USGS website didn’t have any updates on its earthquake map yet, but I kept refreshing the browser, hoping to see where the epicenter was. At the same time, I heard that Stacy was able to reach someone on the radio. While Stacy and the person at the other end of the radio compared notes, the USGS website finally had an update.
A dot, no, a digital stain stood out on the world map due to its size and the purity of its color. The text indicated a magnitude of 7.4 with the epicenter being 108 miles from Quito and just off the shore of Pedernales, Ecuador.
I shouted the update back to Stacy who was talking with the facilities manager on the radio. I then browsed for any news about the quake. At that point, the news was sparse, but at last the BBC had a small blurb. It indicated that the USGS had upgraded the quake from a magnitude 7.4 to a 7.8. Again, I blurted out the update to Stacy while she communicated on the radio.
What was happening all around us?
Answering my own curiosity, I walked down the stairs from the eighth floor to make sure that the building was sound and that there were no people who needed help. There weren’t, and the building appeared stable.
The earthquake off the coast of Pedernales was 10 times greater, in terms of energy, than the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 in California. During that earthquake, I was about 120 miles away. I remember simply thinking that we must have had a small animal under the kitchen sink, scurrying between pots and pans. It was a trivial thought in comparison to the 63 lives that it took. I wondered how trivial our experience was compared to the experiences of those near the epicenter of a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in a country where seismically sound buildings were the exception while the rest were just not built according to the rule.
For comparison, the Haiti earthquake in 2010 was a magnitude 7.0 and killed between 100,000 to 160,000 people. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was a 7.8 magnitude. In 1976, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Tangshan, China and killed somewhere between 250,000 and 830,000 people. The TNT equivalent for seismic energy is about 10.7 megatons for a magnitude 7.9 earthquake or, (and I certainly don’t intend to trivialize with this comparison and am only writing about energy, not lives) about 500 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.
I cannot even begin to imagine what the residents in Pedernales were experiencing that night and during the 697 aftershocks the survivors have experienced since – many of which we also felt in Quito.
From what I understand, it is difficult to stand during a magnitude 6.9 earthquake. If that is the case, just being outside during a 7.8 quake must drop a person to the ground and violently shake him or her while a dusty mist rises, shrouding the gravel, rocks, stones, and even boulders that bounce around uncontrollably in various directions. Neither can I imagine the sound of the earth shifting below, the screams of horror belting out, and things crashing down all around me as I lay helplessly and at the mercy of my creator.
This, essentially, is where our story ends, and the nightmare begins for some of the kindest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.
Aina. We do the research. You change the world.