When the Earth Shook, They Responded
By “Awake!” correspondent in Chile
THE ground shook harder and harder. We moved over to the doorway of our room. Those in the kitchen were trying to keep the cupboards shut, while books, bottles, houseplants, glasses, and jars of jam crashed to the floor upstairs. We wondered how long it would last.
Needless to say, we didn’t time it, but the next day the newspapers said it lasted two minutes. Now, you may think that two minutes isn’t very long, but believe me, you would be surprised at how long it can seem when the ground beneath your feet is shaking!
It was 7:47 p.m. on Sunday, March 3, 1985, when that earthquake struck here in Santiago, Chile. We were resting in our room at the branch office of the Watch Tower Society when it happened. Other members of our staff were having a cup of tea in the kitchen.
The earthquake left us without electricity for several hours. So out came the flashlights, candles, and transistor radios. According to the news over the radio, the coastal areas and older sections of Santiago were hit hard. ‘How are our Christian brothers there?’ we wondered. We couldn’t get through to them—the phone lines were overloaded with calls, and besides, the phone lines were down in those areas. The first call to reach us was from the construction site of our new branch facilities. Were we relieved to hear that all was well and that the new factory building was solid! In fact, only a brick wall put up in the office area that morning had fallen!
That night very few of us got a good night’s sleep. We’d no sooner fallen asleep than a tremor shook our bed, waking us up. The next morning, the newspapers reported the damage, showing pictures of the devastation caused by the earthquake, which reached 7.7 on the Richter scale. Cities without water and electricity. Bridges destroyed. More than 140 people dead and an estimated 150,000 left homeless. Perhaps $1,800 million (U.S.) in damage! Why, the earthquake was felt in Buenos Aires, Argentina, about 1,350 kilometers (840 mi) away on the Atlantic coast! March 3, 1985, will long be remembered.
Help Needed Fast!
We immediately made arrangements for different members of our branch office staff to visit places such as Machalí, Melipilla, Rengo, San Antonio, Valparaíso, and Viña del Mar. The reason? To find out how our Christian brothers were doing and what they most needed in the way of emergency relief.
Scenes of desolation were everywhere. Although most of the damage was to older adobe structures, even some modern buildings were affected—such as an eight-story apartment building in Reñaca that was rocked so hard that it thereafter leaned like the Tower of Pisa. It had to be demolished.
And our Christian brothers? Though hundreds of them lost their homes and possessions, we were so happy to learn that not one of the 16,000 Witnesses living in the affected zone was killed or injured! The congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Santiago and as far away as Punta Arenas and Iquique began to call, asking how they could help. The word quickly spread, and within hours some began arriving with food, clothing, blankets, and other useful items. Soon our two trucks with a total capacity of 5.5 tons were loaded and on their way. By the time they returned late that evening, sufficient donations had been received to plan another trip. And it kept up like that for almost two weeks.
On the second weekend following the earthquake, 110 volunteers from nearby congregations and the construction site of the new branch traveled to some of the cities hardest hit and put up 24 prefabricated wood-frame shelters. As of this writing, we’ve now built 69 such shelters, and we hope to build more before the heavy rains begin.
One congregation wrote us to say that the practical aid and shelters have visibly demonstrated our brotherhood. “¡Los hermanos se pasaron!” (“The brothers outdid themselves!”) In a touching way, we were reminded that it is an international brotherhood, for in the days and weeks following the quake, Witnesses from Argentina, Germany, Italy, and the United States called to inquire about the welfare of their Christian brothers here in Chile. The phone calls were followed by generous contributions to help supply the needs of our “family.”
A Time for Self-Examination
The cry “Earthquake!” and the destructive power involved often stir people to think about their relationship with God. In fact, minutes after the earthquake here in Chile, many of our Kingdom Halls were visited by neighbors looking for protection. A Witness in Melipilla, who is well known in his neighborhood, had many visitors that night. With each aftershock, more neighbors showed up at his home looking for protection. A tent was erected in his backyard, where he spent many hours late into the night discussing the words of Jesus about the last days with “earthquakes in one place after another.”—Mark 13:3-8.
In Viña del Mar a man had discontinued his Bible study and had stated that he would never return to the Kingdom Hall. But where did he find himself that night after the earthquake? Why, at the Kingdom Hall! He and his family were welcomed and given temporary lodging. He was so moved by the warm hospitality extended to him and his family that he determined he would renew his Bible study.
Some of our brothers only narrowly escaped losing their lives. For example, in the Vicuña Rozas Congregation, a brother had recently returned from the hospital and was confined to his bed. That evening his wife and daughter had gone to the meeting, so he was left alone at home. Just minutes before the earthquake struck, he decided to make a real effort and get up and surprise his wife and daughter by having the water ready for a cup of tea when they arrived home. He made his way to the kitchen, and as he was about to heat the water, the earthquake struck. When he returned to his room, he found his bed underneath a three-meter-high (9 ft) wall that had collapsed! Was he ever grateful that he thought of going to the kitchen to prepare a cup of tea!
It was faith-strengthening to see the response of our Christian brothers, who, although they lost all their possessions, remained optimistic. As many commented: “Our homes have caved in, but our faith has not!”