‘It was a terrifying ordeal:’ Stories from Chile’s 8.2 quake

By and
Published On : Wed, Apr 2nd, 2014

As the light of day brings new information and allays some anxieties, others in Chile’s worst hit areas tell The Santiago Times they still ‘fear what is to come’.

Iquique was the city worst affected by Tuesday's huge earthquake. Photo by Matt Owens

Iquique was the city worst affected by Tuesday’s huge earthquake. Photo by Matt Owens

On Tuesday night an 8.2 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Iquique in Northern Chile, causing tsunami waves that were initially predicted to hit across the entire Pacific seaboard. Residents were quick to react, with over 900,000 Chileans evacuating coastal all areas along the coast.

Those living in Iquique felt the quake the strongest.

“The earthquake started as a tremor last night somewhere between 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. We are in an apartment block on the 7th floor opposite the cathedral in central Iquique,” said correspondent for The Santiago Times Matt Owens . “Shortly after it began, the tremor — of which there have been many of in the last week — grew rapidly into a full-blown earthquake. The building was swaying and shaking violently and anything not nailed down was crashing down around us. Luckily, the anti-seismic properties of the building saved us. Everyone opened their doors and looked at each other in terror in the hallway.”

Matt said shortly after the earthquake struck, the sirens and alarms started going off, and his family left the building in search of relatives.

“We ran over to my in-laws at Tienda La Riviera in Plaza Condell to find the place deserted and in total darkness. Glass and debris littered the floors. In pitch darkness we could hear more sirens, helicopters, and see police cars and security racing through the streets,” he said. “We heard a Tsunami alert saying a 2-meter [6.5 ft] wave coming.”

Although the authorities were asking everyone to evacuate the city, Matt and his family chose to return to their building to wait out the crisis. From the vantage point on the 7th floor he witnessed several large fires burning in the city center and felt the numerous aftershocks — of magnitudes up to 6.0 on the Richter scale — that followed the initial earthquake.

As day broke, Matt told us that there was minimal flooding the streets near his home in central Iquique and he could see military personnel arriving to assist the area. He noted that things seemed to be getting back to normal.

“We have power. It came back on for the first time an hour ago, but I’m not sure about others. There will be a big cleanup to do in many houses, I’m sure,” Matt said around 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Despite his calm assessment of the events, Matt was frank about the fear he felt during the chaotic hours that followed the gigantic earthquake.

“It was a terrifying ordeal — feeling the power of the quake and then the panic of the city. The uncertainty of whether to evacuate or not and the dread of the impending tsunami were petrifying. I didn’t sleep until about 4 a.m.,” Matt said, adding that a sense of calm returned with daylight on Wednesday morning. “The sun is up and from here it looks relatively calm out there now. Hopefully there won’t be another one.”

‘A fear of what is to come’

For others in Iquique, the stress and fear will not subside until all family members and loved ones are accounted for.

The Santiago Times spoke with Estefania Morales whose family lives in the northern city, including her uncle, a fisherman in the port. She told us that shortly after the tsunami warning was issued he was told to sail out to sea until further notice. When she spoke to us again Wednesday afternoon, he was still out of contact.

“We still have no contact or news about my uncle who was fishing,” Estefania said just before noon on Wednesday. “With respect to my family in general they are all ok, more calm, but with a fear of what is to come, they talk of a magnitude 9 earthquake, which would be catastrophic.”

She added that despite the calm, there is a lot of fear and anxiety, and her family is looking to get out of the city and northern region entirely.

“Inside people’s homes there is a lot of fear, everyone is sleeping in their clothes and for only short periods of time,” Estefania said. “ Some of them want to come to Santiago as soon as possible.”

President of the Local Fishers and Crew Members Union Alberto Olivares Rojas told The Santiago Times that boats in Arica suffered damages but to a lesser extent than in Iquique and without any loss of life.

“Thank god we don’t have any human casualties, only material losses such as the damage to property,” he said, explaining that fishing boats that were in port at the time were severely damaged.

Beyond the catastrophe zone

Outside of Iquique people heeded the warnings, although the immediate impact of the earthquake was much less evident.

South of the epicenter, the city of Antofagasta lies just beyond the two regions designated disaster zones by President Michelle Bachelet in the early hours of Wednesday morning. The Santiago Times spoke with Chris Harrod, a visiting professor of ecology at the Universidad de Antofagasta, who said while authorities were taking precautions Tuesday night after the earthquake, everything was going smoothly.

“All is good here in Antofagasta — we live in a neighborhood called Coviefi and we are about 490 feet above sea level,” Professor Harrod told us two hours after the earthquake Tuesday night. “ I have heard that the authorities have cut power to northern Antofagasta to save energy, but all is well lit down here in the south of the city.”

“The evacuation seems to have gone calmly and the sirens all worked well,” he added.

Still further south, residents told The Santiago Times they did not feel the initial earthquake, but followed all the instructions of authorities.

Tom Dirkx, a Belgian who resides in Caldera, a touristic port city in the province Copiapó about 600 miles south of Iquique, told The Santiago Times they were all evacuated at night but remained calm.

“I run a pizzeria with my partner so we were all busy working when we got several text messages from Onemi [the National Emergency Service] saying we had to evacuate to safe zones. At first we were completely in the dark, but when the neighbors came over to warn us and turned on the TV we realized what was going on,” he told The Santiago Times.

Although they didn’t actually feel the earthquake when they heard sirens they did decide to close their business and go home to get some warmer clothes and food before heading to the hills.

“Thankfully, we had some friends over there so we spent the night watching TV until midnight. The tsunami alarm was still on but as the sea was pretty calm we decided to go back home where we checked news sources before falling asleep,” Dirkx said.

Overall there were no damages reported in the town as the tidal waves didn’t reach further than the beachfront, according to Dirkx.

Ferdinand Schreurs lives in an old colonial house in the center of La Serena, just over 820 miles south of the hardest hit city.

“We didn’t feel anything, but [the tsunami threat] was frightening,” he told The Santiago Times. “We simply heard a lot of noise from cars, plus the weather was exceptionally cold, but the sea was very calm. Route 5 and Avenida de Aguirre were cut off and the gas stations were full as people were heading to the high areas of La Serena.”

By Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis and Belinda Torres-Leclerq
Copyright 2013 The Santiago Times

About the Author

Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis
Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis
Charlotte specializes in foreign relations, law, and human rights. Her work can also be found on Mapuexpress, The Center for Justice and Accountability, and InterAmerican Security Watch. Charlotte is also a regular contributor to the BBC Radio5 program Up All Night as a Chile correspondent. Contact her at [email protected]
Belinda Torres-Leclercq
Belinda Torres-Leclercq
Belinda studied political sciences and Latin American studies in several European Universities. She wrote on food issues for Latin American news organization Noticias.nl and blogs about Chilean politics for MO*. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her at @BelindaMTL on Twitter.