How we had looked forward to that day, 27th February, entertaining our friends, David and Ann from England; perhaps with breakfast on the terrace in the sun; a leisurely day in Santiago where we had worked from 25 years and a celebration meal in the evening for all the family.
But it was not to be. At 3.34a.m., loud bangs and jerks shake us awake. The bed is bouncing violently. We are flung from side to side. Objects slide and fall. A china place on the wall beats a rapid tattoo. It is pitch dark. The lights have cut out.
We are on the top floor of a 24-storey block of flats. Car alarms and emergency bells add themselves to the clatter. I tell myself “this building is meant to withstand earthquakes. Anyway, surely it will stop soon.” Each minute lasts an hour. I try to get out of bed. My way is blocked by overturned furniture. Heart is pounding, mouth dry. Colin staggers out of the bedroom to see how our guests are. He is thrown, first against the closet, then against the opposite wall. He and David are lying in the doorway of the visitors’ room. He remembers it is our Golden Wedding Day.
At last, at long, long last, the banging and clatter abate, the lurching and lunging calm down, but the building is still rocking like a ship at sea. The mobile phone rings. Katherine, asking if we are alright. Enrique walks into the flat, having let himself in with his key after climbing the 23 flights of stairs. He urges us to put on clothes and shoes (lots of broken glass) and follow him quickly. “This is a biggie”, he says.
There is emergency lighting on corridors and stairs, but no lifts working. The five of us make our way down the many steps. We pass an exhausted old lady. But her daughter tells us she is alright, not to stop. Panic attack maybe. Loud hammering comes from a flat where the door has jammed. Finally we get down to the front garden. Margaret and Fern meet us with hugs, blankets and bottles of water.
People are walking about in pyjamas and dressing gowns, many leaving the building by car. We sit down on some garden seats. Enrique’s 80-year old mother is wrapped in a blanket and Sammy has his arm round her. Dog is restless and uneasy, fastened by her lead to the seat. Another strong tremor. Pulse rate rapid, throats still dry. We ring Libby in the UK, telling her we are OK. An hour has passed since the quake.
Feeling of unreality pervades. I can hardly believe I am still alive. How can the building be still standing? Firemen and technicians are checking for gas leaks. Those who have flats on the ground floor may now return to the building. We go in with Margaret, Enrique, Sam, Fern and Grandma Pepa.
Inside their living room, we sit with the front door of the flat open, so emergency lighting from the passage can enter. A fireman passes telling us to put out the candle. Suddenly Katherine and Rodrigo arrive, having driven five miles and bringing thermos flasks of hot water. The cup of tea tastes good. Sammy listening to radio via mobile phone tells us the epicentre is near Concepción, 300 miles South, but not even the army has received signals from there. Very bad news.
Katherine and Rodrigo take us with David and Ann back to their house, where electricity and gas have already been restored. On the way, Katherine rings her daughter Cata, 16, in England. Gives her telephone number of relative of David and Ann and instructions to tell them our guests are fine. Still two hours to daybreak. More strong tremors.
Eerie silence. Quake over, but no communications. Difficult to get line on mobile – only “System overloaded”. Gradually dawn breaks. Katherine announces TV has begun transmission. A commentary begins which will last several days. The number of fatalities begins to climb. The picture painted gets steadily blacker. Airport badly damaged. Will our visitors get home? Old buildings worst hit. Supermarkets all closed, shambles inside.
Katherine goes to the street market. Maybe stall holders were up preparing before the earthquake struck. She brings back quantities of fruit and salad. Colin and Ann need their medication. Grandson Francisco, 18, drives Colin and David back to the flat with a list and they hunt through the muddle for medicines, money, documents, spectacles, watches and more clothes (Ann is still in her pyjamas).
Another contact with Libby. She has taken Cata out of boarding school for the weekend as the girl was upset on seeing the devastation on CNN. We ring the restaurant to cancel the celebration meal. Then have showers, knowing few are able to enjoy this luxury. Rodrigo and Francisco join a long queue for bread. The Lady President addresses the nation on TV, wearing a black dress. The full extent of damage will not be known for another 72 hours. She urges support for the rescue workers, medical teams, firemen, army and police. She expresses heartfelt sympathy for the bereaved and homeless and urges the whole population to fortitude and cooperation.
The day is ending. Enrique, Margaret and family come to the house to take showers. We are all together, so David and Ann take some group photos to mark our 50th anniversary and we have a simple sandwich buffet, thanks to those who queued for bread.
A very much more sober celebration than we had planned, and we still feel shaken. But we are all here and alive. And we have received such love and help from every one of them. Colin says a prayer of thanksgiving. And that is our story of gold among the rubble.