The house shook with such force that the middle-aged couple was brutally pushed out of bed and onto the floor where they scrambled to find clothes in the dark. Windows shattered, furniture rattled and everything that had been hung on the walls dropped to the floor. Remembering the large television at one end of the room, the husband dashed to save it, only to have it smash at his feet.
Following his wife, they ran into the next room and pulled his mother-in-law out of bed mere moments before a pile of bricks demolished the headboard of the bed.
“It felt as if it went on for five or six minutes because it didn’t seem to end,” mutters Paulino Urrutia, struggling to hold back tears. “My Lord! What’s going on? Why this? We just didn’t know what was happening.”
The experience of Urrutia and his wife Graciela Silva at 3:34am on February 27, 2010 is one shared with most of the people living in the eight regions of Chile where the massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake was experienced.
In Concepción, Chile’s second-largest city and the closest metropolis to the epicenter, the three minutes of intense shaking caused destruction and damage everywhere.
The streets converted into labyrinthine passages between the crumbled ruins of houses and buildings while downtown, the recently inaugurated fifteen-story building Alto Rio collapsed, falling backward and breaking in two pieces with an unknown amount of residents inside. The city’s tallest building, the O’Higgins Tower, sits like a crumpled giant with its top floors buckled inwards, hinting at its imminent collapse.
At the quake’s epicenter in Cobquecura, the seismic activity wreaked havoc on the beachfront town’s residents, with an estimated 95% of the houses left in ruins or uninhabitable.
A week after the earthquake, people like Rita Valenzuela are still living in tents in makeshift camps on the hills above the town, afraid to go back to their homes after the traumatic experience.
“The sensation of movement came from everywhere. The sound was horrifying. Dogs howled, people screamed and the houses creaked and groaned,” says Valenzuela, passionately recollecting the worst moments. “It was like a giant tornado was moving through the house.”
“It shook so hard, we couldn’t get down the flight of stairs,” explains Valenzuela. “We eventually made it to the yard and all sat down because we could not stand up. That’s when I told my husband we had to flee.”
Valenzuela and her family made their way to the hills that overlook the coastal town, famous for its country-style adobe houses and a popular destination for roughly 25,000 tourists during the summer.
Roads were blocked with fallen trees and the remains of caved-in houses, preventing many vehicles from reaching the hills and leaving residents to continue on foot.
The residents were eager to find out what had happened to their homes so at daybreak, some ventured down into town.
“We went down to check out our houses and take out a few things, at least to be able to sleep. We brought plastic tarps and came back to this camp,” said Valenzuela as she made bread in a hollowed-out aluminum drum. Her father’s home had fallen while her sister’s house exhibited only a few cracks on the walls.
While post-earthquake looting was unheard of in Cobquecura, Concepción was a vastly different story.
“I think it was a few hours afterwards that the vandalism and robberies began. It was one of the worst things,” recalls Urrutia with a furrowed brow. “The next day it was worse because the people attacked and robbed the supermarkets. People took more than they needed. And it wasn’t just the poor; luxury cars pulled up to fill up on goods.”
“Today, I’m finally calm. I hadn’t slept in two days because of the mobs of looters. That was a constant fear,” sighs Silva, his wife, with a brief grin.
Urrutia and other men from the neighborhood gathered what makeshift weapons they could muster, usually shovels, and kept watch during the nights, ready to defend their homes. The men gathered around a bonfire in the middle of the street, suspiciously monitoring passersby who lingered too long.
According to Urrutia, in other neighborhoods, residents set up barricades and used a system of marks on their hands for instant identification.
On the fourth day after the quake, one of the targets for looters was a Santa Isabel supermarket in the downtown area. A few helpless policemen looked on permissively while a steady stream of people ransacked the store, ducking under the metal security curtail that had been forcefully curled upwards for access. As reinforcements arrived, police officers began grabbing looters who were taking unnecessary goods or too many of one item. A small, multicolored stream flowed on the sidewalk in front of the store, leaking from smashed cleaning products and dropped fruits and vegetables.
Eventually, tear gas grenades and water cannons were brought in to disperse the insistent crowd who complained to police forces that they needed goods for their families. Some looters, porting 10 kg bags of flour, were chased through the rubble of nearby buildings. Later that night, Almacenes Paris, a department store next door to Santa Isabel, was looted and set ablaze.
Shop owners came by to see how badly their stores had fared the quake and if looters had taken their toll. A young Chinese immigrant woman who refused to be identified sobbed quietly, gazing at the crumbled remains of her two-story restaurant, now a hollowed-out skeleton.
Pedestrians silently strolled by, some searching for places to buy food, while others meandered aimlessly out of curiosity. There were no typical sounds of commerce, street conversations, or cars whizzing by in this city of over 1.3 million people.
As in many cities, towns and villages in the hardest hit regions of earthquake-affected Chile only a sense of awe and bewilderment filled the air amid collapsed buildings and homes. Night falls and only the occasional military vehicle and its lonely headlights break a blanket of utter silence.
“And here we are,” laments Valenzuela, pausing before generously offering a warm bread straight from her crude oven with a determined smile.
For now the only thing on everyone’s mind is when and how life will return to normal.