“My God, I left my country and didn’t die, and now I’m going to die here!” This was the heart-rending thought that crossed the mind of Seraphine Philomene on the night of 27 February, when she was awakened at around 3:30 am by the violent shaking of the 8.8 degree earthquake on the Richter scale that ravaged the area of Concepción and strongly affected the central-southern area of Chile between the regions of Araucanía and Valparaíso.
Of Haitian nationality, this 21-year-old student arrived in Santiago, Chile, together with her family in search of peace and quiet after the earthquake that left her country – and in particular the capital, Port au Prince – in ruins last January, causing the death of over 200,000 persons. Unaware of what was in store and thanks to the contacts of her uncle Pierre Desarmes, they moved to the country that would prove to be the next victim of a force of nature.
The earthquake of Saturday 27th made this Haitian family’s move even more complex. “When the aftershocks occur, they refuse to stay in the house. I have to talk to them all day, reassure them that there’s no problem, that this is a country prepared for earthquakes, that it will pass, that it isn’t that bad. But they don’t hear me. They are still very affected psychologically”, says Pierre.
His brother Stanley intends to leave the country, but his niecePhilomene [LC1] wants to bring all her family over, certain that, in spite of everything, they’ll be much better off in Chile and that she’ll manage to complete her studies here. “Our family didn’t die in Haiti, so they’re not going to die in Chile either”, indicates Luigene, Philomene’s mother.
But it was not only these battered Haitians who had a rude awakening that night. Living in Concepción, one of the cities most devastated by the quake, the Mendoza-born Argentinian Cibeles González still can’t get over the impact of the earthquake, as she told the Argentine newspaper Clarín. She says the only thought she had was to cover herself with a blanket while she listened to the falling furniture and pictures and the shouts of her friend and apartment mate. Startled into action, she put on some jeans and managed to go down the stairs of the building to seek safety, together with her friend, in a park in the city.
“I still can’t grasp it, I can’t get a grip on this horror”, she says, and although she hasn’t gone back to work, it has never crossed her mind to leave the city, where she leads a good life and has never lacked for work.
Coming from an earthquake-prone country like Peru and experienced in this type of situation, because she was in Lima during the 2007 earthquake that resulted in more than 500 fatalities, the Peruvian Danesa acted calmly, knowing that desperation makes a complex moment even worse. She didn’t run, she just waited and tried to calm the children who were in her care.
“Although the Lima earthquake was devastating, this one was much stronger. At one point I thought that the apartment where I work as a nanny was going to crumble. Thank God it ended and an hour later I was able to phone my husband. The most complicated thing was to communicate with my family in Lima to tell them I was perfectly safe. Apparently the news over there was dramatic and my mother was very worried until we were able to get in touch on Saturday”, she says.
U.S. citizen Rachel Shrier was another of the foreigners who was caught unaware in Chile, and specifically in Santiago, by the fifth largest earthquake in seismological history. In spite of the fright and confusion of the moment, this student from Middlebury College highlights the spirit of the inhabitants.
“On one hand it was a chaotic situation, but on the other I think it is interesting, because people are facing the situation in a positive manner. But I have to admit I was very afraid, even though I’m from San Francisco, a city that is used to earthquakes.” In spite of her fear, she will stay on in Valparaíso to study and get to know more about the city.
Xavier Planes arrived in the country as a tourist but also as a student, from the Universidad de Valencia in Spain. He will be spending six months studying cinematography at the Universidad de Valparaíso and, prior to starting his courses, he toured the beautiful Chilean Patagonia, which was not affected by the quake. When he arrived in Coyhaique, however, he realized that something strange had happened.
“When we stopped at a cyber café we learned that there had been an earthquake. We saw all those affected cities and realized that, fortunately, some friends and I were down farther south. We saw that it was a strong blow for the country.”
He adds that at first he thought about returning to Spain, in particular because of the collapse of communications, but that after things recovered rapidly he changed his mind, although he can’t hide the sadness he feels for the families who lost everything.
The relative normality that now reigns in the country has also stimulated the arrival of new students, such as the Italian Elena Zucchiatti, who wasn’t in Chile for the earthquake. She arrived on Sunday, March 7, and is impressed with the spirit and fortitude of the Chileans. “I think all Chileans are working very well toward a recovery. I’m a little afraid of the quakes, but I wanted to come to Valparaíso and learn about the city,” she stated.
In the middle of the Viña del Mar International Song Festival the Mexican Gabriela Vergara, anchor of the A&E channel, also had a bad time. The earthquake hit while she was attending a party to which she had been invited by artist Fanny Lu after the close of the festival’s fifth night.
“I wanted to run like mad, but they wouldn’t let me because the windows could shatter, so I stood there and saw Anahí coming toward me, screaming desperately. I tried to help her but she ran off. Then I thought, if I’m going to spend the night in the street, at least I’m going to put on warm clothes and get my passport, which I had left behind in my room. I went back and changed. The city was in darkness and the A&E people took us up a hill because there was a tsunami alert. We were taken back to the hotel at 7 a.m.,” she said.
Her fellow-citizen, the renowned writer Juan Villoro, who had recently been awarded the King of Spain award, lived moments of horror on the seventh floor of the Hotel Plaza San Francisco in Santiago. “It was a brutal sensation. I thought it would be very difficult for us to survive. Because of my experience with earthquakes in Mexico and the force of the shaking of the earthquake here in Chile I thought it very difficult that we would survive,” he stated.
“Finally, when we discovered to our amazement that nothing had happened to us, we went down to the lobby and out into the street, thinking that we would find a devastated city, but Chilean architecture is extraordinary. At that moment we were able to breathe more easily again,” added the writer.
Beyond their logical fear, what has most impressed the foreigners has been the humaneness and solidarity of the people of Chile, which has once again been tested to the limit after the tragedy. These qualities were highlighted in the renowned and prestigious Spanish newspaper El País. It its website, the newspaper published a moving article describing the spirit and fortitude of this burgeoning South American country.
In one of its most significant paragraphs, the text indicates that “the industriousness of the Chileans is prototypical in Latin America. World respect for Chile and the presence of its citizens in spheres of international responsibility far exceeds the weight the country has in terms of size and population,” and ends with a clear reference to the catastrophe and the courage and mettle of the country’s inhabitants.
“Their capacity to reconcile races, ideas and credos is an example and a guarantee of their own progress. They will emerge strengthened from this disaster. They will overcome it with their usual weapons: their tenacity and modesty. Although the successes of the past years have given the Chileans greater confidence in themselves, they don’t like to boast of their virtues and joke about their national pride with the incomparable cry of Viva Chile, mierda! (Long live Chile, damn it!)
This post is also available in Spanish