Managua—Victim of a Tragic Nightmare
By “Awake!” correspondent in Nicaragua
THE sign is still standing. In mute testimony it declares: MANAGUA, 404,700 INHABITANTS. And in the center of the city another silent sentinel bears witness. The clock on the main entrance of the National Palace stands at 12:35.
At that early morning hour, Saturday, December 23, 1972, during the darkness, the capital of Nicaragua died in a terrifying earthquake.
With the quake’s epicenter located directly under the center of the business district, Managua ceased to exist as a habitable city in but thirty seconds. The death toll stands officially at over 12,000, but it will be impossible ever to determine the exact number that perished in the tombs formed by crushed houses.
The city, for the most part, was resting peacefully when a warning tremor came on Friday night at about 10 o’clock. But Managua has had many tremors. They occur regularly year after year, yet generally do not produce significant damage. However, that Saturday morning last December was different.
Shortly after 12:35 a.m., survivors of the mighty earthquake began spilling into the streets. A thick blanket of dust choked the city. The people were quiet, stunned. Just as the dust started to disperse, a second shock hit, not as strong as the first, but sufficient to bring walls down. Then at about 2 a.m. a third one struck. There was little damage left for it to do.
Reports from all over the city testify to the same reaction when the dust finally cleared. As it occurred in ancient Egypt when the firstborn in each house was struck dead, “there began arising a great outcry” and lamentation from the stricken people. (Ex. 12:30) The full realization of what had taken place was dawning. As rescue work began, there was the bone-chilling awareness of death all around.
During the early hours of the morning, fires broke out at various points in the city. The major one ravaged the central market, burning out a section fifteen blocks long. Neither water nor electricity was available. The central fire station was destroyed; its modern equipment tangled in the wreckage.
All over the city families suffered the same nightmare. It was repeated a thousand times, yes, even tens of thousands of times: The house caved in. The survivors clawed their way out of the rubble, fighting for breath, choking in the dust-filled ruins. Yet many did not make it. Those that did immediately set to work assisting their family.
A mother of eight children reports: “My husband was the first one to get free of the ruins. After digging me out we worked frantically to find the children. The light of the tremendous fires in the downtown area assisted us to see. When we heard a muffled cry we would dig. There was an arm sticking out there, a leg farther over. Thanks be to God, we were able to save them all.”
Lola Díaz, a seventy-nine-year-old witness of Jehovah, was resting when the quake collapsed the wall beside her bed and buried her. Her daughter was able to dig herself free, and then quickly called for help. Several neighbors responded to her cries and together they dug out Lola, already unconscious. She recovered and is recuperating.
Conchita Gonzales was sewing late that night. As the walls came down she immediately crouched under her sewing machine. Cement blocks crashed on top of it, but she was safe.
Others, however, were not as fortunate. A family had just moved into their new residence on the northwest side of the city. Their home was made of cement blocks. Steel bars on the outside of the windows gave a sense of security. Yet, everything came crashing down as if it were made of wet mud. The entire family of eight perished, buried alive.
Then there was the happy wedding reception still in progress early that Saturday morning. Horror struck when the thick concrete roof came crashing to the dance floor. Thirty died.
But there were also remarkable and unusual incidents of survival. A terrified mother searched frantically for her little two-year-old daughter, digging in the rubble of what used to be her home. Later, the little one was found sleeping peacefully in a room at the back, untouched by the quake.
A guest in Room 318 of the Gran Hotel had just finished his shower. He tried to open the door to his room and could not. Finally it was opened by a couple inside. Standing naked, dazed and bewildered, he demanded: “What are you doing in my room?”
“Your room? This is our room, 418,” was the reply.
Neither party at the time realized that the third floor had collapsed, and the fourth floor was now situated on top of it. The naked man escaped death, but many others on the third floor perished.
To bury the thousands of dead, long trenches were dug in the cemeteries. The rows of dead piled one on top of another were a sight that will long be remembered. Some were buried in caskets, most were not. The dead arrived wrapped in plastic, blankets, sheets and some naked. Four bodies were placed inside a portable clothes closet with a rope holding it shut, and in this fashion were lowered to the bottom.
Rescue and Relief Operations
As reports of the tragedy began filtering out, the shocked world reacted quickly. Other countries began almost immediately to send medical aid and other supplies. So it was not long before earthquake victims were receiving assistance.
One of the first centers for providing relief supplies of food and water was the branch office of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, an agency used by Jehovah’s witnesses. It is located eighteen blocks from the quake’s epicenter, on the east side of Managua. The building suffered only light damage. The majority of the other homes around it were completely destroyed.
As a chilly dawn broke over the city that Saturday morning, the overseers of the congregations of Jehovah’s witnesses acted with one accord and purpose. They wanted to know particularly how their fellow Witnesses were. They visited each member, one by one, to see what could be done to assist those needing medical aid and to attend to whatever other needs they might have. After this investigation, a full report was carried to the branch office, where an appraisal was made of how best to initiate the relief program.
In a few hours, reports started to arrive. By noon Saturday, fifteen of the sixteen Managua congregations had reported. Amazingly, there were no deaths among the more than 1,000 Witnesses in the city! There were bruises, cuts, scratches and abrasions too numerous to mention, but not even a broken bone! Seven Kingdom Halls were destroyed, and four more were damaged. At least 80 percent of the Witnesses lost their homes.
At once efforts were under way to care for these Witnesses and their families. The genuine love that exists among God’s people certainly manifested itself. By Saturday afternoon a Witness arrived with a truck and 300 gallons of water from a congregation sixteen miles away. Those at the branch office and their neighbors were greatly refreshed by this.
Then at 10 p.m. the first two truckloads of supplies arrived from Jehovah’s witnesses in Liberia, Costa Rica. A short time later, two more trucks arrived from Witnesses in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Thus food, clothing, medicines, water and gasoline were on hand within twenty-four hours or so after the disaster! The borders were open day and night. No visas were required in this national emergency.
A little after 7 o’clock Sunday morning the Watch Tower Society’s branch overseer of Costa Rica arrived with further supplies. Representatives from the branch of El Salvador brought more supplies shortly before noon on Sunday. Volunteer workers were pouring in from various congregations in Nicaragua too. They were quickly given assignments sorting clothing, packaging food and dispatching it. Others volunteered to cook simple meals to feed the workers that were devoting full time to the relief work.
Relief Work Gathers Momentum
On Sunday, the first day of the relief program, 578 persons received enough food for two days. That Sunday afternoon, the branch overseer held a meeting with the visiting Witnesses from Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador. They wanted to know: “What do our Nicaraguan brothers need? What can we do to help? What supplies should we buy?”
It was impossible to buy anything in Managua. So lists of needed supplies were drawn up and instructions given. By Monday morning trucks began to arrive with supplies from other places, and trucks continued coming day and night. At the end of two weeks it was decided that all supplies would henceforth be brought in from Costa Rica, due to its nearness and favorable market conditions. At the close of the third week the relief program of the Witnesses had packaged and shipped more than twenty tons of food, sufficient to provide 120,000 meals. Witnesses outside Managua had opened their homes to their Christian brothers and sisters in need of a place to stay.
From around the world Jehovah’s witnesses have been sending gifts for use in helping their fellow Witnesses in Nicaragua. And as supplies are needed, the Watch Tower Society is sending money to Costa Rica to buy these things. In addition, due to the kind cooperation of the Red Cross and the United States AID program for Nicaragua, 70 tents, 100 cots and 100 blankets were obtained for needy Witnesses. Also, 100 additional blankets have been purchased in Costa Rica.
We do not know how long our relief program will have to continue. But the government declared that it will be necessary to feed a quarter of a million persons in Nicaragua for nearly a year.
A Modern-Day Exodus
During Saturday, the day of the earthquake, as rescue operations continued, the attention of survivors also turned toward saving what personal effects had not been destroyed or irretrievably buried. By that evening Managua was living in the streets. The eerie night was cold and menacing. Improvised carbide lanterns and little coal-oil lamps began to flicker in a feeble and pathetic effort to relieve the fear.
Children whimpered and cried softly and dogs huddled by their masters, cowering in fright as the earth continued frequently to tremble. When, finally, after seemingly endless and sleepless hours, the welcome Sunday sun stabbed a shaft of light into the fear of night, thousands had but one single resolution, to leave this horror-filled city.
The government was broadcasting messages calling for immediate evacuation, but there were doubts as to what sections would have to be evacuated or how it was to be accomplished. However, in a three-day period about 100,000 a day fled the city in an unprecedented exodus bordering on hysteria. Transportation was at a premium. Private truckers were charging four and five times their usual rate. Day and night the loading and leaving continued.
The desperateness of some drove them to extreme and selfish measures to get transportation. A man driving a pickup truck explained: “I had stopped to make a right turn. As I was watching the traffic, a man darted out into the street with a revolver in his hand and stuck it into the window of a vehicle across from me, grabbing the man with his other hand.”
One of the sad aspects of this national tragedy was the looting that took place. Several days after the quake, large crowds began to form in front of the supermarkets. These were stocked full for the Christmas season. Armed guards were stationed around them as preventive measures to avoid looting. But soon the mobs became uncontrollable. The guards either fled or joined in the looting, according to many eyewitnesses. Five supermarkets were stripped. Even the plumbing fixtures were torn from their bases and carried away. Afterward, two supermarkets were set afire.
Many isolated cases of pillaging private homes were reported. The army was instructed to shoot anyone found stealing. For four or five nights after the earthquake the sound of rifle fire filled the city throughout the long darkness. Many were the cases where people would go to seek transportation to move their personal effects, only to return to find that their homes had been plundered during their absence.
One professor, after digging his family out of the rubble, found his small daughter in critical condition. The roof had collapsed on his car in the garage. So he used other means to take his daughter to the hospital. Returning the next day, after the death of his daughter, he found thieves looting his home. They had even entered his garage, jacked and propped up the roof and proceeded calmly to strip everything off his car including the wheels!
Courage in Face of Catastrophe
The Nicaraguan people, for the most part, are warmhearted and generous. They have developed a remarkable courage. Hardships in their lives are not new. And this latest one has been taken with characteristic courage.
Depicting this is the example of a woman who fled Managua and was living in a makeshift hut on the railroad station platform in Masaya, fifteen miles south of Managua. While waiting for her dress to dry, the only one she had been able to salvage, she spoke to a missionary of Jehovah’s witnesses whom she had invited in. She explained that twenty-seven families had to wait their turn daily to take a bath at a nearby gasoline station. With quiet courage she accepted her plight.
In one area to which refugees had fled, the dew was so heavy that in the morning their sheets were soaked and had to be wrung out and hung out to dry, ready for the next night. But no complaints were uttered.
Many in Managua, with no place to flee and too poor to get away, have remained in the desolated city. Groups band together seeking human companionship, comfort, and protection at night. Most people sleep on canvas cots that provide little warmth on chilly nights. The condition of the Witnesses still there is improving, but there are hardships.
Three weeks after the quake, one seventy-year-old was found sleeping in the street on her cot alongside a fence. To protect her somewhat from the chilly night winds, she had nailed some pieces of plywood around her. Witnesses working in the relief program set up a tent for her to live in. When she saw the tent being set up she broke down and cried. Other Witnesses felt the same when they received their tents. Many had been sleeping on the ground, others on cots out in the open. It does seem almost miraculous, in view of all that has happened, that no deaths have been reported among Jehovah’s witnesses.
Five days after the earthquake it was decided to evacuate the Watch Tower Society’s branch office and missionary home. It was relocated in the country, twelve and a half miles southeast of Managua. There a family kindly offered to share their living space so the branch office and relief work could continue to function without interruption from a central location. About 100,000 of Managua’s 404,700 inhabitants have remained in the city. Many Witnesses are among those staying.
The branch office and circuit overseer for the Managua area quickly worked out a schedule for visiting and uniting the Witnesses into groups. Congregational meetings were established and the field ministry reorganized. The visit of the circuit overseer was scheduled for one and a half days with each group. Thus by the end of ten days all groups were functioning smoothly.
This first visit of the circuit overseer was followed up by a second one of two days. One day was devoted to the field ministry and the other to special meetings. As martial law prevails, no meetings are held at night. The circuit overseer also delivers food and clothing with each visit as well as giving special instructions about hygiene and the dangers of contamination. He also checks on the health of the brothers from a physical point of view, taking note of any possible needs of hospitalization or of medicines. This entire arrangement has proved to be a real blessing to all.
Part of “the Sign”
Truly this was a tragic nightmare for Managua’s hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. Fear, anguish and horror have prompted many persons to pray to God. Will they continue in their efforts to draw close to God? Will they believe the Bible—that “there will be great earthquakes” in this time of the end? Only time will tell.—Luke 21:7, 11.
Reconstruction work has started on buildings, but no man can bring back loved ones who have died. Only the Creator, Jehovah God, can. And we have the sure promise recorded in the Scriptures, that he will do this.—John 5:28, 29.