Earthquake Devastates Guatemala
An on-the-scene Report
By “Awake!” correspondent in Guatemala
THE earth under Guatemala—actually under much of Central America—often rumbles. Many here are adept at waking from a dead sleep, jumping to their feet and making it to the street as the last rumbling dies down. But sometimes there is more than rumbling.
In 1917 a powerful quake badly damaged the capital, Guatemala City. But it was rebuilt and is now the largest city in Central America, with a population of about one million.
My wife and I live here in Guatemala City, and so are used to the frequent rumblings. But in the early morning darkness of Wednesday, February 4, we experienced a violent rocking and shaking such as few people in Guatemala have ever before experienced. Sadly, many did not live through it.
Some have estimated that 50,000 died, but the official count is now somewhat over 23,000 dead. About 74,000 or more were injured, and over a million were left homeless. In a nation of approximately 5.85 million people, this means that nearly one in five persons was without a home!
It is called the worst disaster in the recorded history of Central America, worse than the earthquake that destroyed Managua, Nicaragua, in 1972. The Director of the Mission of Aid from Argentina, Dr. Leandro Salato, went as far as to say that it was “more devastating than the earthquake in Peru in 1970,” even though Peru’s quake death toll of 70,000 was considerably greater.
Terror in the Night
After returning from our Tuesday-night Bible study, my wife and I went to bed and slept soundly. So it wasn’t until the violent rocking and shaking began that I awoke. However, others reported being awakened by the quake’s approach.
An American visitor said that she heard what she thought was distant thunder. As it approached, it continued to grow until it was a roar—a roar from deep within the earth. This resulted from the tearing and rupturing of rock layers. The sound was amplified and magnified until at the surface the effect was ‘like standing between two jet plane engines.’ Or, as another person described it, “like a thousand stones rattling inside the earth.”
As I said, I didn’t awake until the violent rocking and shaking began. What does a person do in such a situation? Does he try to get out of bed with glass breaking and things crashing around him? Should he run for the door to get to the street? As the seconds ticked by and the shock waves gathered momentum, I knew that this was no usual tremor. As thoughts of the roof crashing down upon us crowded my brain, all I could do was to throw myself over my wife, trying to cover both our heads for protection.
Finally, the shaking stopped; the rollings of the house ceased. It had lasted for what seemed an eternity—thirty-nine seconds. At last there was a calm. All was momentarily quiet. I could now get to my feet. At once I knew we had experienced a really terrible quake.
The electricity was off; all was dark. Groping in the blackness for a flashlight, I sensed the disarray that would greet my eyes in a moment. As I found the flashlight and switched it on, its beam confirmed what I suspected. How did I miss walking on the shattered mirror that had fallen from the wall? Vases and lamps were on the floor, some in pieces. Dishes had fallen from the cupboard. The bookshelf had toppled over. As I checked each room, I was thankful that we live in a well-built, iron-reinforced concrete house. The time of the quake, according to our stopped electric clock, was 3:03 a.m.
Practically everyone who survived tells of the terror they experienced that night. A tourist from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, staying with his daughter at the Ritz Continental Hotel, was also awakened from a sound sleep. He explains:
“My first thought was of anger—someone was trying to turn my bed over! My next thought, it’s Armageddon. Our hotel had been built earthquake proof, and I’m certainly glad, because it really swayed. It seemed as though we were literally hanging over the street. The plaster on the walls peeled off and the windows shattered. Toward the end, the earth heaved the building like a bucking horse.
“When the earth’s regurgitation stopped, the silence was eerie. People were stunned. The only description is horror, a continuing horror. The man in the next room had a candle. We didn’t walk down the stairs; we ran. I checked my watch; we were on the street before 3:15 a.m.
“It was cold, since Guatemala City is some 5,000 feet above sea level. We could see our breath. After an hour, we decided to go back into the hotel and get more clothing. With candle in hand we reentered the dark hotel, climbing to the eighth floor, all the time worrying about another tremor. In the semidark room we packed our belongings and were quickly back on the street. When we left home it took two days to pack; when we left the hotel it took ten minutes. My razor and our toothbrushes, however, were lost in the rubble on the bathroom floor.”
Meanwhile, we and our neighbors were coming alive from the shock. Cars were being started to get them out from under carports. And neighbors were putting their frightened children and the elderly in them for protection from the cold.
As we cleared a path through the debris in our house, a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses arrived to see if we were all right. We prepared hot chocolate and joined in a prayer of thanksgiving to Jehovah God for our lives. But we wondered how our Christian brothers fared. There are about 2,500 Witnesses in the city, and some 5,000 in all of Guatemala.
The Aftermath—How Bad?
First we set out for the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses, generally a ten-minute drive. Within a mile, however, landslides partially blocked the peripheral highway. Then we proceeded through the older residential area. While our newer subdivision of houses had shown little sign of damage, here the facades of houses had fallen in the streets, and walls were flattened.
Already the traffic was as heavy as during daytime. People were rushing to the homes of their relatives and friends. Men, women and children were in the streets in nightclothes, robes and with blankets around them. They feared to reenter their houses, or what remained of them. The dust of fallen brick and adobe caused an eerie atmosphere in the dark of night, with only the beams of car headlights brightening the streets.
At the branch office we were relieved to find that all were safe. Also, there wasn’t any evidence of damage to the building. The Branch Coordinator had already left to check on Witnesses in another area. So we began making rounds of those in our own congregations. Throughout the early morning hours overseers and ministerial servants of Jehovah’s Witnesses checked on their Christian brothers and sisters. They found that some had lost their
homes, some had bruises, but all had escaped with their lives!
With the dawn came clearer evidence of the quake’s intensity. We learned that it had registered 7.5 on the Richter scale. Soon hundreds of corpses covered with thin sheets or plastic were lining the streets. A radio broadcast said: “The morgue is full. Please don’t bring any more bodies.” Later we learned that about 800 persons had been killed in the city.
In poorer sections thousands of homes had collapsed, leaving tens of thousands of persons homeless. Nothing but piles of debris were left in some areas. But in other sections the better constructed homes of the middle- and upper-class were relatively undamaged. However, many churches had extensive damage. Close to my house a modern brick Catholic church was demolished.
Officials estimated that 20 percent of all the buildings in the capital had been totally destroyed; 40 percent are too badly damaged to be used. The loss in the country has been put at over $5 billion. Guatemala City thus became a camp city. Even the well-to-do, fearing more big quakes, slept in their cars or outside on their lawns or under makeshift lean-tos.
Despite the hardships, the people in general had a fine spirit. Jehovah’s Witnesses stuck together and helped one another. We found that in one temporary street shelter thirty-five of them were sleeping. Outside was a crude barbecue-type cooking place made of fallen adobe bricks. Everyone was cheerful and even visitors were welcome.
Still there was anxiety. What contributed to this were the dozens of tremors that could be felt daily for some time afterward. One on Friday, February 6, registered 5.5 on the Richter scale. It brought down already wrecked walls and caused landslides. I believe the tourist from Iowa well described what it was like to live here after the major quake.
“A doctor in our group had to help with the dead and injured,” he explained. “One sight this doctor said he would never forget is that of a young woman. She had no visible injuries, but was dead, he thought, from fright.
“At 8 o’clock in the morning our tour guide suggested we move to Antigua Guatemala, a city about thirty-five miles to the southwest. It took us five hours by van to reach there, as the roads were blocked by landslides and were thronged with stunned, terrified people. Those in the villages were going to town, those in town were going to the villages, all checking on relatives.
“The continual shakes and tremors reverberated and echoed through the valley. It was a weird sensation for one who was walking. The ground didn’t feel right. It was like walking in mud, but your feet didn’t sink. In other words, the terra firma wasn’t firm.
“At our hotel in Antigua we all lived in the garden around the swimming pool. We ate there, the hotel staff cooked our meals there, and we slept there, or, rather, tried to sleep. Everyone was afraid to be inside a building in case of another big quake.
“It was a continuing horror, a miasma of terror. As we drove to the airport on Sunday, February 8, we saw soldiers burning piles of bodies. We saw villages with very few walls standing.”
At first many of us in Guatemala City had no idea of the extent of the destruction. Wednesday morning the U.S. Armed Forces Radio said that the earthquake’s epicenter had been near Gualán, about 105 miles (170 kilometers) northeast of Guatemala City. Soon our suspicion that the destruction might be worse elsewhere was confirmed as reports began trickling in from outlying areas.
Worse than We Could Have Imagined
First we heard that El Progreso, to the northeast of us, was leveled; over 2,000 were dead. Then from just north of us came news that the villages of San Juan Sacatepéquez and San Pedro Sacatepéquez were destroyed and thousands had died. Lastly came the shocking word of complete devastation in the south central state of Chimaltenango, with its many Indian towns. Over 13,000 were reportedly killed!
Thus the area hardest hit was situated about twelve miles (20 kilometers) north of Guatemala City, and running east and west for about 150 miles (241 kilometers). But we wondered if it could really be as bad as reported.
It took only a visit to one such town of almost 100-percent adobe construction to find out. On Friday, February 6, I visited San Pedro Sacatepéquez, which is less than 12 miles (20 kilometers) north of Guatemala City. Hardly a building remained standing; the place was a shambles. The town streets were blocked by fallen mud walls of the houses. The Catholic church was destroyed, and people were still in a state of shock. Most of the dead had been buried, but corpses were still being pulled from the rubble.
A man was working with a small trowel to dig his few possessions from the heap that was once his home. I could see only the top of his cheap pine table. Another was pulling the metal roofing from the fallen rafters to salvage a little.
On Saturday I was able to take food to congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in some of the hardest-hit highland areas. Despite roads blocked by landslides, it was possible to reach Patzicía, Zaragoza, Tecpán and Comalapa. In Comalapa the mayor and justice of the peace had both been killed. Due to the great numbers of dead and the fear of epidemics, many had been buried in mass graves.
As one now drives through the highland towns, everything is flat. The only difference between the homes and the churches is that the churches are a bigger pile of ruins. These are or were Indian towns. Indians make up about 43 percent of Guatemala’s population, and their rural communities were the hardest hit.
Survivors in places that we visited were without water, and they had very little food. Most had no shelter against the wind and the mountain cold, which at night was in the low 40’s. The wind-blown dust from the crumbled dry adobe bricks was choking; the dust was often six inches thick.
Thousands who had gone to bed Tuesday night never awoke. Their adobe walls collapsed, dropping heavy tile roofs on them. One native survivor said of adobe: “It is of earth and it is our coffin.”
Many injured survivors suffered horribly. With roads blocked by landslides, medical aid often did not reach victims for days. One doctor reported: “They have been lying in pain for days. The swelling is often severe. Many of the bones, especially legs, broke through the skin’s surface. The wounds are often exposed, quickly getting infected.”
We found that the young daughter of a Witness in Tecpán had suffered a broken leg. Other Witnesses also had injuries. But we were amazed to find that none had been killed. In fact, nowhere in the country had a Witness died in the quake! Some, however, lost family members.
One Witness reported that twenty-five of his relatives were wiped out near Tecpán. He arrived at the village where they lived on Thursday, and fifteen members of the family had already been buried. There weren’t coffins enough, or wood to make more, to bury the rest. He explained to those caring for the corpses that the dead return to the dust anyhow, and urged them to put the bodies quickly in the ground to avoid an epidemic.
This Witness encountered a man walking down the street carrying a large sack over his shoulder. The man stopped to talk a few minutes, and then asked: “Do you know what I have in this sack?”
“No,” the Witness replied.
“I have my wife and two children. I’m on my way to the cemetery.”
A traveling representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who was visiting a congregation in Gualán near the quake’s epicenter, reports: “It is difficult to describe the horror of walking among the dead and hearing the cries of the injured trapped in the rubble.
“Many Witnesses came crawling out from under flattened houses. Some received medical aid by candlelight. The Kingdom Hall was damaged, but can be repaired. Due to my visit, many Witnesses from outlying areas had not returned to their homes, but were sleeping in the Kingdom Hall on the night of the quake. This may have saved their lives.”
The scope of the tragedy is hard to comprehend, even for those of us here. A little over a week after the quake, President Laugerud Garcia reported that some 300 towns and villages were more than 40 percent destroyed. The smell of death lingered in some villages for many days afterward. Trucks and helicopters delivered lime to spread on the hastily dug shallow graves.
As evidence of the violent motion of the earth, a huge fissure cuts across the countryside between Guatemala City and the Gulf of Honduras. In some places it is eight feet wide and ten feet deep! The Pan American highway reportedly had many landslides, making travel hazardous.
But bad as the destruction is, the people are recovering. What has helped to make this possible is the tremendous amount of aid that has been provided.
Help from Many Quarters
Aid was sent by over a hundred countries. Day and night for weeks the skies were full of planes carrying doctors, relief workers, medicines, portable hospitals, tents, food, clothing and blankets. However, it was difficult to get this help to the outlying towns and villages. When road travel was impossible, helicopters were used to deliver supplies, but even then it was sometimes days before help reached areas in need.
When help did arrive, the Indian villagers behaved well in the crisis, lining up in orderly fashion to receive food and medical attention. A relief worker from the United States observed: “If this were the States, there’d be violence by now. Here they stand in line and wait. There isn’t even a soldier here to keep order.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses in all Central America and elsewhere were also quick to send aid. On the very day of the quake, Witnesses in El Salvador brought in food and clothing. The next day supplies came in from Nicaragua. From Honduras came tents and galvanized roofing. Thousands of dollars were contributed by branch organizations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Central America and the Watch Tower Society headquarters in New York, as well as by concerned individuals. And from Guatemala itself congregations in less affected areas have provided generous aid in the form of food and staples and money.
As a result, we were able to deliver tons and tons of food and clothing to those in need. It was a real privilege to share in taking supplies to the outlying towns and villages. In place after place we were the first to reach those areas with relief. For example, the first truck reported to arrive with supplies at Rabinal, a hard hit town about thirty miles (50 kilometers) north of Guatemala City, was one from our branch office.
Anticipating a shortage of wood and galvanized roofing, one of the first things we did was to buy rough pine lumber and galvanized roofing. Then Witnesses with building skills loaded a power plant and electric saws on a truck and went to the devastated towns and villages of Chimaltenango. There they began putting up nine-foot-by-nine-foot rooms for the Witnesses who had lost their homes. Such a structure could be erected in an hour. Thus, even before other agencies were able to get tents into these areas, Jehovah’s Witnesses had shelter.
In Guatemala City two Kingdom Halls were badly damaged, and must be rebuilt. Congregations in other towns also had their meeting places ruined. Yet the Witnesses are not discouraged. They are busily rebuilding. They have confidence in the future.
Why Such Confidence?
Basically, it is because of their spiritual viewpoint. They understand the significance of today’s great earthquakes and, despite the destruction and grief these often cause, Jehovah’s Witnesses see in them reason for confidence in the future. But the predominantly Roman Catholic population has quite another viewpoint, a depressed one.
To illustrate: While visiting San Pedro Sacatepéquez the Friday after the quake a man pawing through the remains of his home dejectedly told me: “This is punishment from God, because we have been very bad people.”
Where, you may wonder, did he and many others of these humble hardworking people get such an idea? The next day it became apparent. The Catholic Cardinal of Guatemala, Mario Casariego, said, as quoted in the country’s principal newspaper:
“In these moments of great calamities to the people, the teaching of the Holy Scriptures comes to mind: God loves and because he loves, he corrects, sets straight and awakens. . . . Haven’t we resisted so much that we have obligated God to work in this way?” Then he added that helping to rebuild the Cathedral and other destroyed churches would “be the symbol of an authentic and personal return to God.”—El Imparcial, February 7, 1976, page 6.
But Jehovah’s Witnesses know that the Bible does not teach that God brought this earthquake to punish people. Not at all! Rather, the Bible foretold that “the sign” of the near end of this wicked system of things, and of Christ’s presence in Kingdom power, would include “great earthquakes, and in one place after another pestilences and food shortages.” And after giving “the sign,” the great prophet Jesus Christ went on to say by way of encouragement: “As these things start to occur, raise yourselves erect and lift your heads up, because your deliverance is getting near.”—Luke 21:7-28; Matt. 24:3-14.
So Jehovah’s Witnesses, when they see such powerful evidence of the fulfillment of Bible prophecy as this earthquake, lift up their heads in confidence that God’s new system of things is very near. We are finding that the perplexed people of Guatemala are now especially receptive to this comforting message from God’s Word. (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:3, 4) Even prior to the earthquake, when N. H. Knorr, a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, visited Guatemala City in December 1975, over 5,000 persons gathered to listen at the baseball park in the North Hippodrome. That was more than double the number of Witnesses in Guatemala City!
Nineteen seventy-six was to be a big year here. The sign on the Municipal building in Guatemala City reads, 1776 TWO HUNDRED YEARS 1976. On January 6 the city had begun celebration of its bicentennial. The former capital had been destroyed by an earthquake, and on January 6, 1776, the new capital was officially occupied.
So in January 1976 the modern, growing Guatemala City was optimistic regarding its future. But when one sees people working together to rebuild, and putting their trust in the true prophecies of God’s Word, surely there is even greater reason to be confident that the future will be a bright one for such persons.
[Blurb on page 4]
“The earth heaved the building like a bucking horse.”
[Blurb on page 6]
“The ground didn’t feel right. It was like walking in mud, but your feet didn’t sink.”
[Blurb on page 7]
“There weren’t coffins enough, or wood to make more.”
[Map on page 5]
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