As an expat, you might happen to be assigned to a country in a sismic zone. The constant state of alert and preparation, both practical and psychological, to a possible earthquake can be hard to face, but experiencing an earthquake of intense magnitude is something one never forgets.
On 27th February Chile was hit by a strong earthquake that killed hundreds of people and left many others homeless. Lorenzo Moscia, an Italian expatriate who lives in Chile and that we had the pleasure to interview a while ago, travelled to the areas hit by the earthquake and sends us these incredibly intense pictures. They are accompanied by a text of Chilean journalist Marcelo Simonetti, that collected oral stories of victims of the earthquake.
We thank them both.
The devastating tsunami that followed the last February 27th earthquake in Chile, destroyed 400 kilometers of seaside villages and towns. As reconstruction in those areas begins, their inhabitants build up hope through the narration of those who defeated the big wave.
David Cáceres (58) hadn’t yet recovered from the earthquake rating a magnitude 8.8 that at 03:34 had violently woken up Chileans, when he saw on the horizon a big wave coming towards him. One third of Constitución – one of the most traditional seaside resorts in Chile, with almost 55 thousand inhabitants – was on the ground. The rest of the city had endured the attack from the land, specially constructions by the sea, where Cáceres had his restaurant and his house. When he saw the big wave rising, his first reaction was to hold his son David and his wife. The only light they had was that of a full moon. He was ready to die there, by his restaurant, smelling the fright his wife and son oozed.
Like him, thousands of Chileans that lived on the coast between Llico and Talcahuano (a 400 kilometers long strip south of Santiago) suffered twice on the early hours of February 27th. Half an hour after the big earthquake, consecutive waves beat the shore. The government’s last count confirmed two million and a half people affected and 452 dead, plus an unknown number of missing people that could rise that number to one thousand. Half of them were killed by the rage of the sea.
Cabaña del Puerto had been open for thirty years at the south of Constitución. They offered fish and seafood. The season had been good. Summer profits were of 8 million pesos (16 thousand dollars) which David carefully kept in a box. Minutes before falling asleep, he looked out of the window and took a deep breath of air coming from a peaceful sea. It was almost a mirror. One hour later he got up in underwear and woke up his wife to run away as they could. They went up a hill helped by their son David (20). The earthquake lasted 3 minutes. Once the land stopped shaking, they waited for a moment. They were exhausted, thirsty. As calm returned, they went down to look for water.
“We were down when we saw a big wave coming on us. We tried to run away and got caught in some branches. The first wave destroyed the fishermen’s big warehouses and retrieved. We were exhausted. We couldn’t get loose. We saw the second wave coming, some twenty meters of sea rising on the horizon. I couldn’t stand on my legs. I told my wife and son ‘let’s hug and die together’”, David recalls.
However, as he was almost giving himself up, a strength took over him and he made one last attempt. He grabbed his wife by the arm and went up with her and his son to get away with death. Down there the sea destroyed his restaurant. It gobbled it up to erase it from the map as if it had never been there. Along with it went the summer profits.
“I lost half of my life. I don’t have money even for a nail. Now we’re living in the middle of a forest, spending nights out in the open, covering ourselves with some blankets a neighbor gave us. We’re hungry, but sure we’ll stand up again“, says David.
This is not the first time an earthquake ruins the lives of the Chileans. In 1906, the sea came in the city of Valparaiso after an 8.3 magnitude earthquake; and in 1960, after the Valdivia cataclysm (the strongest ever recorded in history, with a 9.5 magnitude), the sea flooded the city.
Agustina, Mirta and Fidelmira Jaramillo – mother, daughter and granddaughter – were near Valdivia in 1960. In Toltén, 200 kilometers away from the epicenter, they saw their house falling down. They crawled away, they couldn’t stand on their feet. They never thought they would ever go through the same again.
Mirta (74) arrived in Constitución in 1965, following her boyfriend who had won her heart in the beaches of Tolten. They were happy until he died in the ‘90s. She rebuilt her life, opened a restaurant and sold the best fried fish in the area. She lives there with Fidelmira, her daughter (55), and Agustina, her mother (99), who has been in bed for a decade, after she slipped and broke her hip.
“After the earthquake we knew what was coming. We had been told if an earthquake occured, the chances of a tsunami were high. We were alone and scared. We couldn’t move my old lady who was in bed on the second floor, so we had to say goodbye to her before running away. I kissed her on her forehead, so did my daughter, we hugged her and told her how much we loved her. We left the place knowing she could drown“.
The water came in violently. Those who could watch it say it covered half of the Stone of the Church, a rocky formation almost sixty meters high, and then fell on the bars and pubs on the beach and on Agustina’s, Mirta’s and Fidelmira’s house. The water smashed into the house’s second floor. A mark it left on one of the beams can still be seen. However, miraculously, nothing happened to the eldest in the Jaramillo family. No doubt the Stone of the Church worked as breakwater and prevented almost hundred-year-old Agustina from dying. When Mirta and Fidelmira returned, she was there, under the covers, with fear stuck on her face and her 99 years more alive than ever.
Iloca is fifty five kilometers north of Constitución. Although we should say “was”. The earthquake not only devastated all houses in the seaside resort in the center-south of Chile causing deaths and missing people, it also took with it an amusement park and half of the Montini’s Circus, whose artists had appeared in a soap opera of the same name a decade before and became famous. The ten sons and daughters and 22 grandchildren of Fernando Monsalve (66), founder and patriarch of this circus family, were safe and alive after Monsalve and his son Ever (21) alerted everyone the sea was retreiving.
“I had been telling my wife, Olga, I had a bad feeling. The season had been too good. Our performances were full of people, we bathed in the sea everyday and ate fried fish. It was too good to be true… I looked at the sea and saw it so on us that I felt a tragedy coming. Look at the sea, Olga, it will come in any time now”, Fernando recalls.
The night of the earthquake and after checking the earthquake hadn’t damaged his circus, he stood meters away from the sea. His son was with him and they thought it was so calm that nothing would happen. “We looked down on it”, he recognizes.
But, suddenly, the sea began to rise and they had to run away. They alerted everyone, with the wave on their heels. “I saw the sea dragging the lions cage, which is almost 15 tons heavy. It was like a centrifuge swallowing everything: the truck, the tent, the towers, the lights”, says Ever. “We heard the sound of the sea coming like a monster and as it smashed into the lions cage, we heard a roar and then silence. It was shocking”, says Fernando.
The Montini’s Circus lost the tent, a truck, the lights towers, a couple of cages and one of their star lions. Its founder begs for an entrepreneur to lend him a truck to put his circus back to work. For the time being, there is no laughter in the circus, there is only hope for a man who, paradoxically, started his carreer under the pseudonym “Clown Earthquake”.