Another City of Ruins

Now the sweet bells of mercy

Drift through the evening trees

Young men on the corner

Like scattered leaves,

The boarded up windows,

The empty streets

While my brother’s down on his knees

My city of ruins

My city of ruins

– My City of Ruins

By Bruce Springsteen

I could hear Springsteen singing in my head as we enter Concepcion. September 11 and Katrina were supposed to have been the most horrendous markers in my lifetime. A tornado in Oklahoma, Blizzard of “77, ice storm of 1978, and ice storm of 2002 were close personal seconds. It never occurred to me that another mind-soul-and-life-changing event would happen again.

Before the earthquake, we had sat around a campfire talking about Mitch Albom’s book, “Tuesdays with Morrie.” René was reading it for the first time. Many a night, conversations focused on what was really important in life. A decade of working for an oncology group, as well as 16 years in an abusive previous marriage, had made me very opinionated on life’s priorities. I just never expected to have my hard-acquired beliefs tested so soon after being espoused.

Already numb from our experience at Lleu Lleu, and the stressful trip home, it was hard to embrace the reality of what had happened to Concepcion. Our city was in shambles.

The Rio Alta, a newly built residential high-rise that faced the Rio Bio Bio, had fallen on it’s back and split into two. It was shocking to see man’s progress brought down in less than three minutes. The radio would later air a report about a man who had climb for two hours through the debris, thinking that he was heading toward safety, only to find that he was trapped on the ground. What should have been the right direction was terribly wrong.

Virtually every structure bore signs of the earthquake, some more dramatic than others. Fronts and sides of buildings had fallen away, clogging the streets, and exposing interiors like dollhouses. At one house, the headboard of a bed stood against what was once a wall and now air. Such a horrible experience for its former occupants, who were most likely asleep at 3:30 in the morning. How would they ever feel safe in their home again?

Many apartment buildings and homes were so severely damaged that residents had to find makeshift shelters. Tents were being put up everywhere, in parking lots, lawns, even stretches of grass that separated lanes of streets. All utilities were out of service, no water, electric, gas, internet or phone (both landline and cell) services. With the exception of battery radios, residents were cut off from the rest of the world.

As traumatic as it was, it was a godsend that the quake occurred so early. Collapsing walls and falling debris would have injured many during the day. Also, several floors of a newly-built office complex had collapsed, one storey was completely flattened. It was later reported that a bank had removed several, apparently load-bearing, walls to enlarge the space, and the structure had been compromised. Many lives would have been lost if it had been working hours.

Our building had sustained surprisingly little damage. When we had bought the apartment, our new neighbors had said that because the building was built into the rock of the hill, it sustained earthquakes well. I remember being a little dubious, but now have become a confirmed believer.

I felt a reluctance to open the door, fearing what we would find. However, what lay behind was not nearly as bad as expected, especially given what we had just driven through. Broken glassware, books, cds and artwork were strewn everywhere, but no furniture had toppled over. I was certain that we would find the china cabinet, so carefully brought from the States, toppled over and shattered. All that had happened was that one glass shelf had fallen, and the upper cabinet had shifted on its base.  We had lost all of the crystal and some china. Only Sergio’s “Papi’” wine glass and three aperitif glasses had survived.

The Chinese cabinet had opened, spilling Japanese porcelains to the floor. The cast iron statue of a woman playing a violin was face down, with her instrument arm severed. Books had fallen, but the free-standing bookcases had only shimmied across the floor. I was so glad to have put shims under the fronts.

Our contractor, Estaben, had thankfully used earthquake-proof hinges in the cabinets. All the contents had pushed forward, but the door had held position. The Viking range had barely moved. In the second kitchen area, the wine table, which was temporarily supporting the microwave, had toppled over. All of the wine bottles were safe, much to our gratitude, but the door to the microwave was shattered.  We could live without the microwave, but the wine was what made life quite civilized.

Other rooms would reveal minor damage. The most noteworthy occurrence was that the treadmill, which had been locked into the upright position, had fallen across the pillows of the bed. René had said that it was always a bad year when he didn’t go to Lago Lleu Lleu. I will always remember Lleu Lleu as the vacation that saved us.

Our next stop was at the apartment of Sergio’s mom to make sure that she was alright. Her building was one block away from Bulnes, a street that was heavily damaged. Lindaura, who is 82, had been alone when the earthquake struck. When asked how she handled it, Lindaura said that she simply sat on the bed and waited for the building to stop shaking. After most of the people had exited, she descended to take a taxi to Sergio brother, Manuel’s house. It was the third major earthquake in her lifetime.

For myself, in spite of all the time spent in California, it was my first notable one, and I was handling it surprisingly calmly. Stress wouldn’t hit for weeks later, but at the moment, I was in survival mode. Sergio was distraught from childhood fears and memories of mad dash to exit the front door that had surfaced. He couldn’t shake his fear. It would be several nights before he could consider staying in our apartment.

In Manuel’s neighborhood, a retired police chief had mobilized a cooperative between neighbors. A command central, with communal grills, were set up in the small square across from the house. Pool water was accessed for non-cooking essentials. As there were concerned of looting, the men were organized to take shifts to protect families and property.

Sergio found solace with the men, and stayed awake most of the night to keep guard. I sought the tranquility of my thoughts and rested in the back of the Jeep. Its solid yet flexible structure was my buffer to the travesty and mayhem of the day. While the Jeep would shimmy and shake with the convulsions that still gripped the earth, it wouldn’t crumble and fall.

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