As I looked out from the relative safety and luxury of our hotel room at the Grand Hyatt in Santiago, Chile, I started reflecting on the experience of living through a major earthquake.
Five days earlier my wife, Jennifer, step-daughter Jessie and I sat in an unremarkable bus station, about to get on an overnight bus ride that should have been a 10-hour journey from Pucon back to Santiago. Jessie, a junior at the University of California, San Diego, is spending her spring semester at the University of Chile in Santiago. Jen and I decided to visit and explore Chile with her during a break.
We spent three glorious days at a wonderful Tyrolean-style hotel on Lake Villarrica, where we climbed the Villarrica volcano and white-water-rafted the Trancura River.
After a near disaster of getting on the wrong bus, in large part due to my limited Spanish, we headed out of Pucon to return to Santiago overnight. We were in the next to last row, near the lavatory door. This would prove extremely unfortunate in the next 24 hours.
Several hours later I was awakened by a strange lurching, as if from a flat tire. None of us were clear on what was happening. Others began saying "terremoto," Spanish for earthquake. We did not feel in danger. It was only after daylight that we saw the devastation and imagined what could have been.
The driver shared news from his radio that there had been a powerful earthquake, first measured as a 9.0 magnitude. I thought of Santiago with its tall buildings, dense population and history of quake-related destruction.
Tidbits of information and misinformation came over the radio or cell phone calls from friends and family of our bus-mates. We heard that Pucon, from which had just come, had been "flattened." We heard that Isla Robinson Crusoe, off the coast, had split and half had fallen into the sea. We heard that a huge tsunami was 10 minutes from Hawaii and that there was a tsunami warning for California. It felt like the outside world was all havoc.
We were told the Santiago airport had collapsed -- so much for our flight home. The earthquake hit at 3:34 a.m. with its epicenter about 40 kilometers off the coast of central Chile. The magnitude would officially be recorded as 8.8, or the fifth most powerful earthquake since reliable seismic measurements have been taken -- more than 800 times as powerful as the one that struck Haiti only six weeks before.
We sat on the bus in the dark for hours, and felt numerous powerful aftershocks. We dozed. At some point, whether through impatience, sense of duty or adventure, our driver decided to pick his way back down the road, navigating around obstacles. We passed buses disabled with flat tires and even one on its side.
In the small city of Parral people were walking or riding their bicycles with no particular purpose or destination. There was a haze of dust and heavy smoke. At the city center bus depot other buses and some large trucks began to arrive and pile up in and around the depot. It seemed we were going to be there days if not weeks. We had water and some food and agreed we needed to ration what we had.
We were finally allowed off the bus so we gathered camera and blankets to keep us warm in the cool morning and headed out. We had little idea of the destruction. We saw dark smoke coming from a building about a block away, facing a beautiful park. We set out to walk several blocks in each direction to survey the damage and determine if there was anything we could do to help.
A most frustrating part of the experience was that there was no organization to the "rescue effort." Language was a barrier. Many homes were damaged, but about every third or fourth house was destroyed. I later learned that the police station, electricity, telephone lines and possibly water supplies were all destroyed. There was no communication with the rest of the world.
Curiously, there didn't seem to be many medical emergencies. Second-hand information was that there were just six deaths in Parral due to the quake. My guess is that it was the long duration of the quake that brought many buildings down, and that most inhabitants had time to get out safely.
But how could we help? We joined a 30-year-old American woman from our bus who had spent the last two months visiting her kayaker boyfriend in Pucon, who was somehow managing to sleep. On one trip back to the bus, without so much as a verbal warning the driver started it up and backed his way precariously through the parking lot toward the street. The drivers had determined that they could continue their journeys -- curious given what we saw and learned later: The main highway was severed in many places. Bridges had collapsed. But we were delighted to be on the road because we had imagined being stuck in that bus for days.
For the next 12 hours our driver navigated Ruta 5 and its obstacles, detours and closures and slowly we inched back toward the capital. We began to wonder about petrol, as we had been on the road for more than 20 hours.
As we approached Santiago we could see lights and eventually traffic signals. We took photos of failures of bridges and highways, scenes that later showed up on CNN. We really had been right in the middle of it.
We finally pulled into the terminal at 9:15 p.m., about 22 hours after we left Pucon.
Exhausted and concerned for our Chilean neighbors, we were nonetheless ecstatic to be back in control of our destiny. Everybody gave each other hugs and well wishes as we unloaded our luggage. I expressed hearty thanks for a job well done to the driver, who I felt had gone above and beyond the call of duty. We grabbed a taxi back to Jessie's apartment, where we finally were able to use Skype to call family and friends and let them know we were safe. The emotional voices we heard on the other end of each of these calls were unforgettable.
It's definitely much easier to be the one in a situation than to be a mom or dad, son or daughter, or brother or sister on the other end just wondering if we are all right. Jen and I were glad to be there with Jessie, even with that awful bus ride.
We confirmed the next morning that the airport would not be open to outgoing international flights for at least six days. Again we wished we could somehow help in recovery efforts. This proved impossible due to phones not being answered and blocked roads.
Our hearts and prayers go out to the wonderful people of Chile and we are confident that the country will rebuild itself even better and stronger than before.
Since our return my thoughts have turned to Palo Alto and the Bay Area, and what would have happened if an earthquake of that magnitude -- almost a thousand times more powerful than the 1989 Loma Prieta quake -- were to hit our region. Or even one such as the 7.2 magnitude quake that hit Santiago Thursday morning. Consider that a reminder.
Peter Katz is the managing partner of The Counter Northern California restaurants, including one on California Avenue in Palo Alto. A longer version of his Chilean experience is at http://peterkatz.wordpress.com. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.