Terror in Chile

Sruthi Yejju

“It was very scary and terrifying. I am very fortunate to have survived,” is how Jason Martin summed up his experience with the earthquake that rattled Chile Feb. 27.

A Dunlap resident and Caterpillar Inc. employee, Martin was in Santiago, Chile, for a one-week seminar as part of his global MBA course with Thunderbird School of Global Management with 42 of his course-mates.

As Martin and his roommate slept in their room on the ninth floor of a hotel in the financial district of downtown Santiago, the earthquake struck with incredible force at 3:34 a.m. local time.

“We felt it immediately. It woke us up. The second I felt it, I knew exactly what it was,” Martin said.

Martin had experienced a mild earthquake once earlier in El Salvador.

“This was, however, an exponentially highly different experience,” he said in reference to the Chile earthquake.

“The room was shifting and moving. The building was swaying 10 to 15 feet. It just kept going on.”

According to Martin, at that moment, time was not even in consideration.

“It was a whole other dimension at that point,” he said. “It was only when there was a huge ripping sound as if the building was peeling off that we finally jumped out of bed and ran,” Martin said.

He added that their initial reaction was to come into the doorway and wait.

“I looked at my roommate then and I knew the expression on his face was the same as mine,” Martin said.

“It was an expression of absolute terror.”

According to Martin, they both started thinking the building could very well go down. That is when they ran to the stairwell to get out.

“There were many people running down the stairs. It was there in the stairwell that there was a moment when I was the most frightened,” Martin said.

“My first thought was 9/11 and how many people had died on the stairwells then. That was when my mind started catching up to the process that this could be the end, that I might die. I thought about my wife and kids. I prayed to my God.”

Martin added that he could hear everyone around him was praying, and everyone was quickly moving down the stairs.

“It was by the time I got down the stairs that the earthquake finally quit,” he said.

They then went out into the streets.

“It was actually absolutely shocking. Despite the magnitude of the earthquake, there was no visible external damage. Neither our hotel nor the other high rises around it were damaged. It was amazing,” Martin said.

According to news reports, the magnitude of the Chile earthquake hit 8.8, 501 times stronger than the earthquake in Haiti in terms of energy released, and lasted four minutes.

The damage, however, was much less compared to Haiti.

According to experts, this is because Chile is better prepared and has stricter building codes since they have a long history of earthquakes and know how to handle them.

Additionally, the epicenter of Chile’s earthquake was centered 21 miles offshore, while Haiti’s was closer to the surface right at the edge of Port-au-Prince.

“If I think back rationally, I know Chile is well-prepared for such disasters and that the buildings can withstand it,” Martin said. “But at that moment, when you are there, it is a whole different story.

“In the moment, one obviously wants to react, although you don’t know whether to fight or flight. We were very fortunate.”

Martin further described his frightening experience in vivid detail.

He and the other people staying at the hotel stayed outside for a long time. The hotel’s building engineer was called to survey the hotel.

At 5:30 a.m., he went back to his hotel room to sleep, although many elected not to go back. Many people slept in the lobby and conference rooms in the hotel.

Ten minutes later, he felt an aftershock. An hour later, he felt another one. He slept through the next aftershock.

Martin and his classmates had a presentation in one of the conference rooms in the hotel, scheduled for 8:30 a.m., which was moved to 10:30 a.m., but not cancelled.

They experienced a couple of aftershocks during the presentations. Their teacher joked about it and eased the tension of the audience a little. Although they were all nervous, they started to calm down.

Martin felt aftershocks for as long as he was there.

The earthquake caused a significant amount of damage at the airport and it was closed for a few days. Martin’s original itinerary was to leave on Feb. 28.

He did not get to leave until March 4. His was among the first American Airlines flights to operate in Chile when the airport reopened.

Martin said the international terminal was still not opened and was roped off. Domestic terminals were being used for the international flights too.

“Everything was make-shift. It was all temporary facilities including security and check-in,” Martin said.

“We were asked to arrive at the airport three hours before the flight. We went there six hours ahead. Everybody just wanted out. We were all anxious to get home and be with our families.”

It was an equally harrowing experience for his family back in U.S. At the time of the earthquake, his wife, Michelle and kids were at a friend’s place in Chicago.

According to Martin, a lot of people in his group back in Santiago had blackberries. A colleague offered him his blackberry to contact his family.

Martin said, “I couldn’t call so I sent my wife an e-mail, hoping that she will see that first thing in the morning.”

She never got that e-mail.

Back in Chicago, Michelle woke up to the news of the devastating earthquake. She was panic-stricken.

She contacted a friend in Peoria who had worked in Chile, who in turn contacted a friend who is living in Santiago. He told them that the damage was not so bad in Santiago and that Martin was probably fine as most of the buildings there were intact.

This provided slight relief to Michelle.

Later in the day, Martin sent another e-mail from his friend’s blackberry to his boss and colleagues informing them that he was fine and that his flight was cancelled until further notice. He forwarded that e-mail to his wife too.

She received that email. She could finally take a breather. She knew he was safe.

“She then got angry that I e-mailed work and not her,” Martin said and laughed. “I told her later that I had e-mailed her first. She just didn’t get it.”

Martin said that the power in their hotel went out for two days and was powered on generator but the elevators were not working.

“We had to climb the stairs till the ninth floor, which was a good exercise,” Martin joked.

“The Internet was not working for the first 12 hours after the earthquake. When it started working, thanks to the marvel of Skype, I could finally talk to my wife.”

According to Martin, the water supply in the hotel was not affected.

“The restaurants and grocery stores were closed. Only one or two were open but on a limited supply. The hotel served whatever they could, whatever they had stored. It was only from Tuesday onwards that the grocery stores and gas stations started operating,” he added.

Martin said he did not experience any looting or pillaging as reported from certain parts of the earthquake-raged towns.

According to news reports, Santiago was among the least affected cities that experienced the otherwise destructive earthquake.

Martin said that his first day back at work was very strange.

“It was the first time in my life that I felt like I was going to die. That reality, made this reality when I came home, very strange. It was surreal,” Martin said.

He added, “It was emotionally shocking. The emotional impact of the experience cannot be explained.”

When asked if he would go back to Chile if he got a chance, Martin said, “Oh yeah, absolutely. I would live in Chile without second thoughts. It is a beautiful country with beautiful, warm and open people. It is very secure and stable, economically and politically. It is arguably the strongest Latin American economy from a stability point of view,” he said.

Martin added, “We have lived in Latin America before, so it would be easier. I know the languages and am comfortable with the lifestyle. I would love to live there.”

According to Martin, the most striking thing that he came away with amidst the experience was the ability of technology.

He said that although he knew the benefits of technology and how we humans are dependent on it, this experience left him with a deeper consciousness of the power of technology.

He explained, “Everybody there was accessing the Internet on their blackberries, minutes after the earthquake. It was amazing to see that the U.S. Geological  Service had already posted the seismic information about the earthquake on the web and the BBC online already had a headline about the earthquake in Chile. Both US and Britain are thousands of miles away from Chile and they already had the information.”

“I had just lived it moments ago, just seconds ago and here I was reading about in news online.

It goes to show how technology has truly made the world a smaller place. People are more well-informed and aware of what is going on in the world, almost instantly, the minute it happens,” he added.

Despite his horrifying experience, Martin doesn’t have any nightmares about it all.

“I was,” he said, “very fortunate.”