By Joe Darby
I’ve experienced a number of hurricanes but being in the middle of an earthquake — even an aftershock — is pretty scary.
When a strong earthquake hit the picturesque country of Guatemala in February, 1976, the New Orleans Times-Picayune decided to cover the disaster because a good number of Central Americans lived in New Orleans. I quickly volunteered for the assignment because I’d visited Guatemala two years previously, on a junket for travel writers, and was familiar with the country. (I told you about that trip last week.)
The quake was centered about 100 miles northwest of Guatemala City and the death count would be a staggering 27,000 by the time all of the aftershocks were over. More than 90,000 were injured.
When I and a photographer checked into our Guatemala City hotel, we quickly realized the extent of the damage. The elevators were out so we had to walk up to our sixth floor room. Between the stairway and our room, a huge crack in the corridor wall, more than a foot wide, was open to the air. You could look out and see the street six stories below.
Our room was in a bit of a shambles and we couldn’t use the bathtub because the plaster ceiling had collapsed and filled the tub with debris. The restaurant was not serving and frequent aftershocks kept shaking the building, making it almost impossible to sleep.
We heard the worst destruction was in the smaller towns up in the mountains so we hired a car and driver and headed to a village, perhaps 20 or 30 miles outside of the capital.
When we arrived at our destination — and I regret I cannot remember the name of the town — devastation was everywhere. Almost all of the structures were built of adobe, which made them particularly vulnerable to the vicious quakes. One of the first things we saw as a man was searching through the ruins, calling for his missing wife, “Lydia, Lydia.” I can remember the poor fellow’s voice to this day.
The photographer and I climbed on top of a huge pile of rubble that used to be a house, in order to get a better view. Just after we had safely climbed down, a severe aftershock began shaking the ground beneath us, almost knocking us off our feet. I’m sure that if we had still been on the rubble pile we would have taken a nasty fall. But we had to explore more of the area, observing and using our driver as an interpreter for interviews.
The village church was roofless and as I peered inside, I saw a sight I’ll never forget. A statute of Christ still stood, but it had been decapitated
We were in the village for a couple of hours, gathering information and images, but we had to return to Guatemala City to wire the story and the photos back to New Orleans. On the way back to the capital, we came to a point on the road that had suffered a huge landslide, obviously caused by the aftershock. We barely had enough room to drive around the fallen rocks, just avoiding the edge of a cliff.
After filing our article, we had quite a difficult time getting a flight out, because so many people were trying to flee the country. But after missing several flights, we managed to get aboard one and return to the states.
The memories and experiences of that tragedy will live with me forever. As terrible as hurricanes are, at least we know when they are coming. Earthquakes strike with no warning. And completely devastate countless lives.
Next week I’d like to tell you about a couple of much more pleasant trips, to the great nations of England and France.