May 4, 2010 By Lu Paradise — 325 total views
By David Siervo, Chile.
February 27, 2010. 3:37 A.M. For two seemingly eternal minutes, Chile is rocked by a massive 8.8-degree earthquake with its epicenter just off the coast, 90 km north of the city of Concepción, affecting a huge area from Copiapó all the way down to Temuco, and is even felt as far north as the desert of Atacama and as far south as Puerto Montt, about 3,500 km away, and from the coast all the way across the Andes to Argentina in the provinces of Mendoza, Neuquén and Río Negro.
The cities of Curicó and Talca, with their older constructions and many adobe-made houses, are badly hit. The ensuing tidal waves (three of them) that hit the coastline from Pichilemu to Talcahuano devastated much of what remained standing in the lower areas close to the sea. Some small fishing towns, such as Iloca, are simply wiped off the map.
The city of Constitución lies at the mouth of the Maule River, some 320 km southwest of Santiago. The town—with a permanent population of about 50,000, the main livelihood of which is employment in one of the largest paper pulp plants in Chile, the wood industry, and fishing—is also a tourist resort in the summer.
At the very mouth of the river lies the small island of Orrego, covered with forest and about 250 meters from either shore. The end-of-summer celebrations in Constitución traditionally include an event called the Venetian Night, complete with fireworks, music, and dancing, that was to take place the following night.
Had the earthquake hit that night, the death toll would have been much higher, as usually from 700 to 1,000 people camp out on the island to watch the fireworks. As it was, some 150 to 200 (the exact number is still unknown, as there are many missing who haven’t been accounted for) had headed out the night before to get a good spot.
Having lived there all their lives, the townspeople knew that in the event of an earthquake, they only had a few minutes to flee to higher ground to avoid getting caught by the ensuing tidal wave, though nothing as big as what they were about to witness had ever hit Constitución.
However, the people on the island had no way of getting ashore quickly. Survivors say that immediately after the quake, the sea receded with such a horrific roar that it sounded like some prehistoric monster, ready to pounce on its prey.
As the people took to the hills, two humble fishermen—one of them accompanied by his 17-year-old son—set off in their rowboats toward the island in a desperate attempt to bring the campers ashore. It would take them the better part of ten minutes to make the trip across, get about 8 to 10 people on board, and make it back.
They managed to make the first trip safely. On the second trip, when the boat was nearly full, the fisherman called to his boy to get on board.
“Father,” said the boy, “take one more person back, and I’ll come on the next trip.”
The father insisted, but the boy would not budge. He kept repeating calmly: “I’ll be fine, father. Save these people.”
The father knew there most likely wouldn’t be enough time for another trip. But seeing that his son was determined to stay, he let another person on, and with tears in his eyes, set off rowing furiously toward the shore.
The other fisherman, Juan Gomez, a gruff man, used to the rigors of the sea, had gone on before him, and having let his passengers off on the shore, defiantly headed out again to fetch another batch just as the tide steadily started to rise.
Then the second wave hit.
A massive 15-meter-high wall of water struck the coast with unimaginable force, completely covering the island and sweeping away everything on its way 10 km up the river, leaving a path of destruction behind it.
Looking at the devastation a week later, I couldn’t help but wonder how anybody could have survived, and yet … miracles still happen in the 21st century.
In a supreme act of heroism, the boy gave his life so that somebody else could live. Incredible as it seems, his father managed to make it through the ordeal, though his fellow fisherman, Juan Gomez, did not.
But there are other accounts of what happened that terrifying night that defy all belief.
Twenty-three-year-old Mariela Rojas and her three-year-old son, Tomás, had been on the island since the beginning of the summer, where Mariela and her sister tended a small food stand. After the quake, Mariela grabbed a small life jacket they kept there, put it on Tomás, and tied it firmly. They survived the initial more gradual tidal wave by holding on to a tree. When the second wave hit in full force, they were swept away. In Mariela’s own words:
“When we were hit by the second wave, I determined not to let go of my boy. I held on to him tightly as the strong current carried us along. We must’ve been in the water for about an hour, though it seemed an eternity to me [it was actually over two hours]. Though Tomás cried throughout the ordeal, that was reassuring, because as long as he was crying, I knew he hadn’t drowned.”
The sea finally tossed them up on the river bank close to the high bridge that crosses the Maule River, some 5 km upstream. There they were spotted by Justo Rebolledo, a fisherman who had fled to the hills and come down after the second wave to see about his boats, convinced that the worst had passed.
“There they were, exhausted and tangled in a pile of rubble. The girl was screaming for help and her little boy was shivering with cold. I took them by the hand and led them up the hill.
Three minutes later, the third wave hit.”
Unfortunately, Mariela’s sister and brother-in-law did not survive. Neither did two friends of hers and their two young children, all of whom were on the island at the time of the disaster.
Twenty-six senior citizens lived at a small home for the elderly not far from the waterfront, which was run by two nuns. The old house was already badly damaged by the quake, but the nuns knew they would not be able to get the old folks out in time to avoid the tidal wave, as some of them could barely walk.
So they instructed them to stand in a cluster and embrace each other firmly. All but two did as they were told, and although they sustained bruises and other minor injuries, they all survived. The two who went off looking for their things in another room unfortunately lost their lives.
Another elderly man was on the island with his nine-year-old grandson. They managed to climb a tree high enough to avoid the full brunt of the second tidal wave. The man kept encouraging the boy to hold on and not give up, until his own strength gave way and he was carried off by the current. For the next four hours, the boy clung to the tree, badly bruised, soaking wet, and screaming for help at the top of his lungs, until he was finally rescued by yet another fisherman in his boat, after the third wave.
What were the odds of Mariela and her son surviving such an experience? God only knows. Again, what are the odds of 24 elderly folks, some of them crippled, others senile, most of them barely able to walk, let alone run or swim, surviving an earthquake and subsequent tidal wave? Statistically impossible to calculate, but no doubt extremely low. And once again, what are the odds of a nine-year-old boy surviving three tidal waves by clinging to a treetop? Surely next to nil.
Such are the miracles that occur in the wake of major disasters. And such are the unsung heroes who help make those miracles possible. The anonymous, humble, noble-hearted, oft-forgotten fishermen who did not hesitate to lay their lives on the line to save others. The dedicated nuns who humbly serve the lonely and the destitute, day in and day out, asking nothing in return. The common folk who have lost everything, even loved ones, and yet are ready to bounce back and rebuild their lives upon the rubble of their former homes.
At Juan Gomez’s funeral, attended by hundreds who came to pay homage to this true hero, a young lady with a beautiful voice, who is a close relative of his, sang a heart-wrenching Spanish version of Amazing Grace. The entire congregation wept until they could weep no more.
And so do I, as I write these lines and ponder the courage of these noble men and women, about the true meaning of life and death, sacrifice and unselfishness, gain and loss, and such fickle things as fortune and fame, so often used as the measure of success.
I presumptuously went down to Constitución as a relief effort volunteer, thinking I was doing humanity a service. Little did I know the lessons of humility, resilience, and thankfulness God had in store for me there, and who I was to learn them from: the poorest of the poor by worldly standards, and yet the richest of the rich in God’s eyes.
May this be a humble tribute to those unsung heroes, who by their shining examples have lifted a powerful beacon to light our way. And mostly, may it be a song of praise to the Creator of all things, who laid it upon their hearts to offer their lives on the altar of sacrifice so that others could live. What a fitting reminder of our Savior’s sacrifice, Who gave His life so that we could freely have life eternal.