Guatemalan Earthquake February 4, 1976

I'm going to jump ahead a few years to write about a life-changing event that took place on my last trip to Latin America.

Sam and I had been on the road for a couple months. We rented a small house on Lake Atitlan near a village called Panajachel in the mountains of Guatemala. I was sometimes impatient, and I thought a little time apart might be a good idea. So I decided to go into Guatemala City, about 80 miles east, to see about making a few dollars teaching English. Sam would stay at the lake and I'd be back in a week or two.

When I realized that I'd be lucky to make 50 cents an hour I decided just to hang out in the city instead. I went back to a cheap pension that I had stayed in previously, Pension Meza. Rooms (or beds, rather) rented for $1.50 a night with meals included. Some rooms have 3 or 4 beds, mine had just 2. I had no idea who I'd be rooming with so I just put my sleeping bag on one of the cots and went out for a look about. As I often did in Latin America, when I got tired or bored and just wanted to sit I'd go to a movie. So I popped into a theater to see a movie called "Terremoto". I wasn't sure what that meant but for a quarter I was willing to take a chance. After a few minutes into the movie I realized I had seen it before. It was "Earthquake". It wasn't one I wanted to see again, so I left.

The pension had about 15 rooms all opening up into two courtyards. It was a great place to meet with travelers from around the world and swap stories. By evening you could expect impromptu parties. This night there were a couple guys from the states. One played guitar while the other juggled. I sketched them in my notebook:

It was an oddly magical night for me. I had just started playing guitar so I hung on every chord this guy played, especially because our tastes in music were the same. Over the course of a long evening several of us bonded and planned for some adventures to come, including more nights like this. None of us wanted the party to end, but eventually fatigue set in and around 1:00 a.m. we went back to our rooms. I noticed that my roommate had deposited his stuff in our room, but I had yet to meet him. I crawled off to bed for some much-needed sleep. Around 2:00 he finally came stumbling in. He was complaining about getting ripped off down at the Dairy Queen (this being a hangout where gringos could score some cheap drugs). I told him I was too tired to hear his complaints and went back to sleep. But not for long.

At about 3:00 the earth started shaking. So hard in fact, that my sleeping bag with me in it was thrown to the floor. It was an earthquake. Huge earthquake - 7.5 on the Richter scale. I vaguely remember screaming as I scrambled out of the bag and stood in the doorway to my room. I sensed that my roommate was not moving and I started to yell at him to get up. For about a 45 seconds the grumbling roar was deafening - bricks crashing, glass breaking, wooden beams tearing apart. It was hard to stand as I was being rocked back and forth. But by the grace of God, when the shaking stopped I found myself still standing and alive. Then the scrambling for candles and flashlights began as we survivors gathered in the courtyard. We went room to room to check on everyone. Our building was a one-story adobe brick structure. A couple rooms down we entered a room to find a wall had collapsed onto a bed. We quickly started removing the 20-pound bricks to free the man beneath. He was Guatemalan, and when we got the last couple bricks off him he jumped up and started dancing on the bed, waving his arms and shouting "gracias a Dios, yo vivo!" Thank God, I'm alive!

After finding that on one in our pension had any serious injuries or had died, we numbly assessed our situation. We all decided to grab our sleeping bags and blankets and try to sleep in the courtyard. Somehow I managed to sleep just fine.

By the morning's light we better saw what we faced. Electricity and running water were no more. Pretty bleak prospects for sanitation and meals. But oddly enough I, and I think the others were so happy to be alive that those things were less important.

I found out now why my roommate hadn't responded. That night he had taken some drugs, probably some "downers" that ensured he'd sleep well, too well. He told me the next day a story that I find oddly amusing to this day. He said he woke up about 5:00 a.m. to use the bathroom, and when he walked through the courtyard around all the sleeping bodies, he was mad, thinking that there had been some wild party and he wasn't invited. So he went back to bed. Then when he found out what really happened he was even angrier to think he'd slept through the biggest earthquake since the 1900's. So much for party drugs. I felt a bit sorry for him. He'd just flown in the day before from New York. Never been to a foreign country, knew no Spanish and had no idea about the culture. But he was a nice enough guy so I sorta took him under my wing to go out and explore the city.

Next door, the facade of cathedral lay in ruins on the street. The lady who the day before had sold us things from her small store was dead. She and some 23,000 others. Some streets were impassable as huge cracks 10 feet wide and 20 feet deep had opened up. I especially remember the hotel at the bus terminal which still stood but seemed to have split down its middle. I just found a photo of that building, and since I didn't have my own camera I was amazed that after 40 years it's almost as I remembered:

Most modern structures fared better than the older buildings. The devastation was vast. The Red Cross had set up lots of tents and medical clinics. We were told that we couldn't really help, so we just observed. We wound our way back to our room. In the courtyard as a bunch of us tried to make sense of our plight an aftershock hit, this time registering over 5 on the Richter scale. On its own, this would be a powerful quake. This guaranteed that none of us would be sleeping under a shaky roof for a while. In fact, in the weeks following the initial quake there were 1500 aftershocks, gratefully diminishing in intensity with each day.

These two photos are how I remember the city. Rubble, especially those adobe bricks littering the streets.


As soon as the proverbial dust began to settle, my NY friend and I made our way out of the city. We were able to catch a bus that took us part way toward the lake and Panajachel. I had been told the smaller towns in the mountains had fared better than some of the cities. So I wasn't too worried about Sam, but I know he worried about me. When we were riding out of the city, a local on the bus pointed to what looked like a large flat area. He told me it had been a town a week before. A sad, sobering thought.

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