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Mar. 1 2010 - 4:53 pm | 2,924 views | 2 recommendations | 9 comments

Terremoto! Chile’s Earthquake and my escape

It was the last Friday of the summer; Chilean revelers danced to Tito Bambino and chugged Brahma brews under white cabanas on a beach peppered with bikini-clad girls selling Axe deodorant, Pantene Pro-V, and Durex condoms. If it weren’t for the Serengeti of thong bottoms, dark skinned boys and wandering dogs, Vina Del Mar, a coastal beach town located about one hour west of Santiago in Chile, might be compared to Labor Day Weekend in Ocean City, New Jersey.


Last Saturday, February 27th, 2010 at about 3:00 AM, I awoke like James Bond, adrenaline pumping through my veins, slicing through a hazy fog of sleep. My bed was shaking and didn’t stop for two whole minutes that felt like twenty. I heard windows shatter outside. The wall at the foot of my bed cracked into a giant X as if Wolverine and Jubilee had paid a visit. I felt like I was under attack by a torturous force of nature that I’d never before reckoned with (was it the black scary monster from Lost?) or perhaps we were under military attack? (Peru does have a bone to pick with Chile over the origin of the Pisco Sour.) Vases fell down and broke into a million pieces. My nails dug into pillows.

Then silence. I tried to plug the lamp into the wall and was electrocuted. I curled into the fetal position on my bed, holding my hand in pain and listening to my heart beat out of my chest. After a moment of calm, another terrifying quake erupted, walls shook, beer cans rolled across the floor, and then in half of the time as the first, it subsided.

The 8.8 magnitude earthquake that could be felt a country away in Buenos Aires, Argentina devastated Chile, particularly Concepcion, the epicenter of the quake and the second biggest city in Chile. So far over 700 deaths have been reported and Chile has officially asked the U.S. for aid. To put the power of this quake in perspective, the recent earthquake in Haiti, which killed over 200,000 people, was recorded as a 7.0. According to Jessica Sigala, from the USGS, this Chilean earthquake released about 500 times more energy than the Haitian earthquake. The earthquake moved Earth off its axis, moving the day off by 1.26 microseconds.

So why was the Haitian earthquake so much more catastrophic? Coastal Chile has a history of deadly earthquakes, with 13 quakes of magnitude 7.0 or higher since 1973, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. As a result, experts said that newer buildings are constructed to help withstand the shocks. St. Croix based building manager, Alessandro Londi, who’s used to building hurricane resistant infrastructures, remarks, “Haiti doesn’t even have building codes. In all of the photos of devastation, all you see is crumbling cement, there’s no steel anywhere.”

8 hours north of Concepcion in Vina del Mar, most of Chile’s high school and college aged students who were soaking up the rays during their last week of summer experienced the quake while in one of Vina del Mar’s or neighboring town Valparaiso’s infamous nightclubs. My four guy friends ran into the house at about 4:00 AM with three Chilean girls from the club. They were freaking out—but in a very different and less sober way.

“At first we just thought the bass was turned up full volume, bumping the outdoor wooden porch, but when I fell to my knees, I realized something was off. The more sober people on the dancefloor started yelling ‘Earthquake!’ and the club was quickly shut down,” said William Prendergast, a D.C. tourist living in Buenos Aires.

Party-goers skipped out on their table-service tabs and grabbed extra bottles on their way out of the club, as promoters and bartenders used emergency lights to help them safely escape. A once illuminated coastline went dark, except for frantic car lights trying to navigate the roads by the glow of a full moon.

Just a few hours after the quake, the first aftershock began, lasting only about 20 seconds but more nauseating than the quake itself because with each tremor, we didn’t know if it was going to start all over again or not. Tsunami warnings were issued for Peru and Chile. And as the quake spread west, Australia, Japan, northwest California and Hawaii were all issued tsunami warnings as well.

An incredible video tracking the ocean movement after the initial quake can be found here.


Cell phone connections were inoperable and we couldn’t access Internet to tell how bad the earthquake had been. The cracked streets of overlapping cement were littered with glass from exploded street lamps. Nothing was open, not even McDonalds. Water bottles and cigarettes were scarce. The ocean was eerily pristine, a haunting reminder of the calm before the storm. The air was heavy with apocalyptic fear.

We left the beach and paid a local Chilean to drive us inland to Santiago. We knew the earthquake had devastated Santiago too, with several hundred deaths reported, but we needed more travel options to get out of Chile. Our original flight out of Santiago to Buenos Aires was canceled, and as of today, Monday the 1st of March, the airport is still not fully operable. As we waited in line at the one petrol station open in all of Vina del Mar, the ground started shaking again. We bolted further from the station’s structure and held onto each other in an almost thrilling panic.


Santiago’s streets were just as empty as Vina del Mar’s, but with air more laden in anxiety and trepidation. The normally crowed outdoor parks were empty on a sunny Saturday. The only apartment we could find on such late notice was on the fourth floor of a concrete building. Hot water was out, electricity was down in most buildings and almost every restaurant, bar and store was closed.



Many backpackers avoided concrete buildings and opted to sleep in the parks, but after going out for a couple beers, Santiago was too seedy for our comfort—so we took our chances on running down four flights of stairs versus getting pick pocketed and pissed on by drunk, high bums all night.  At 4AM, I felt another tremor and clung to my friend in fear. At 8:30 AM, the tremors were too strong to ignore. We bolted out of bed, threw on our jeans, I grabbed my laptop and we tried to pull open the door which had been displaced after the quake. After about 20 tremorless minutes, we returned to bed but stayed dressed in our jeans with our passports in our pockets, trying to close our eyes.

Similar accounts of party-goers, celebrating the last Friday of summer vacation in Santiago described absolute terror- hundreds of intoxicated twenty-somethings running for the doors in panic as walls cracked around them. The phones were incessantly busy as loved ones called each other to check up. One friend was in a cabin on stilts in the Andes mountains, the cabin shook, the group fled, and the cabin fell.

But the devastation in Concepcion is by far the worst. Looting of grocery stores and shops began on Sunday morning. So far, one person has been shot by the police and 160 looters have been arrested. We finally reached our friend’s host family who said via Facebook, “Please do not come here. We are holed up in our home with guns to shoot off the looters. You cannot help. I have to go, we have to try and meet the police. Bye.”

According to the BBC http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8542789.stm

About 1.5 million homes in Chile have been damaged. Most of the collapsed buildings were of older design – including many historic structures.

About 90% of the historic centre of the town of Curico was destroyed. Many roads and bridges across the affected area were damaged or destroyed.

One US risk assessor, Eqecat, has put the cost of repairing the damage at between $15bn and $30bn (£9.8bn-£19.6bn) or 10-20% of gross domestic product.


At 9:00 AM, yesterday morning, we hailed a cab to the bus station. Many cab drivers told us stories of driving late Friday night and losing control of their vehicles. We purchased midday bus tickets to Mendoza, Argentina a popular escape route for backpackers like us with cancelled tickets out of Santiago’s airport.


The line at the border.


As we crossed the border in the Andes Mountains, the air was cold, but the sun was shining. If you listen closely you could hear guitar strings celebrating a release of fear as we crossed the Chilean border into Argentina. The worst is behind us. We’ve left Chile, our nauseating anxiety and the heavy air of sadness for a country that we can’t call our own.

IMG_4221Finally back safely in Argentina.


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9 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    What an experience! I’ve been reading your postings and want to say two things. First, I’m glad you safe, very glad. Second, keep writing, don’t stop for a second, record everything.

  2. collapse expand

    I’m glad you are safe. How are Argentines coping? Are they scared?

    We’re hearing reports of little government help for victims — and their frustration with this. What did you see or hear of this?

    • collapse expand

      The Argentines are absolutely fine. No one seems too concerned other than if they have friends and family in Chile. I have only made it to Mendoza so far, I fly back home to Buenos Aires and will be able to gauge the cultural concern better from there.

      In terms of government help, I know the BBC has pretty excellent coverage of who’s helping. The Chile government didn’t officially ask for help until yesterday I believe. Things are returning to normal in Santiago..school is starting just a day or two late, etc. But Concepcion is a completely different and sad story. I don’t know much of what is happening there yet.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Terrific tale. So glad to hear you’re safe.

  4. collapse expand

    My heart was in my throat reading your account of the earthquake. I was a good blend of personal experience, scientific information, and the pictures added a beautiful optimism.

    What is happening to the world? It is rearing up like a wild horse trying to throw off a rider!

    I am glad you are safe.

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