Four Hundred Died, I Survived
IT WAS October 10, 1986. I was getting ready to close my cosmetics shop in San Salvador to return home for the noon meal. Suddenly, the entire five-story Rubén Darío Building rumbled furiously.
Later, I learned it was the worst earthquake in El Salvador’s history—7.5 on the Richter scale. It killed 1,200 persons, about 400 in the Rubén Darío Building alone, and left 300,000 homeless. President Duarte said it caused ‘more losses than the seven years of civil war.’
When the quake struck, I was hit on the head and knocked out. When I came to, I was lying face down, in total darkness. People were calling out in pain and fear: “Lord, save me!” “Why did you bring down this punishment on us?” “Help me!”
I touched my face. Thankfully, I wasn’t cut, but my feet were trapped under the debris. The air was so thick I could hardly breathe. Nearby I heard a voice. The building office clerk, Mr. Quijano, was calling out to me, “You’re the lady from the cosmetics stand! Are you all right?”
“Yes, but my feet are trapped,” I answered. “How are you?”
“I think my arms and legs are broken—I can’t move. Help me, please.”
I stretched out my hands and arms as far as I could but only felt broken glass. “I’m sorry, I can’t do anything. My feet are trapped.”
The lack of oxygen was oppressive, and I prayed to God: “Please help me!” I recalled his words to Joshua: ‘Be courageous and strong, for Jehovah your God is with you.’ (Joshua 1:9) But I must do my part, I reminded myself.
After that I began to feel stronger and greatly encouraged. I decided I had to get my feet free before they became numb and swollen. I began trying to wriggle one of my feet loose. Meanwhile, the ground continued to tremble, and the building creaked and heaved. My shop had been on the first floor.
Finally, my right foot was free. I thanked Jehovah aloud for this. Mr. Quijano, his breathing now labored, must have heard. He said: “Keep praying to Jehovah, and pray for me too, please!”
My feet felt cold and moist. ‘I’m bleeding!’ I thought. When I touched the lower part of my left leg, I realized that the sticky, moist substance I felt was either shampoo or moisturizing lotion from the showcase. Now lubricated, my left foot slipped out of its trap.
“Has Jehovah helped you?” Mr. Quijano asked.
“Yes!” I answered. “My feet are free now.”
“Please help me!” he cried.
I used all my might to inch forward to Mr. Quijano. With every movement I cut myself with broken glass. Then I felt a mass of twisted metal between us.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Quijano. I can’t come any closer.”
“That’s all right,” he answered. “Let’s just stay put.”
From nearby came voices of at least two men and a young boy. These were people from the second floor, now less than a meter above. I was able to stick my head up through a gap but immediately reeled back. The atmosphere was thick with a fine dust that left me gasping for air. Suddenly, I felt exhausted and wanted only to sleep.
I awoke to an eerie silence. ‘Has everyone been rescued, or have they all died?’ was my first thought. I quickly called out to Mr. Quijano three times, but he only groaned softly. I continued to pray.
After a while I heard a picking sound. “Mr. Quijano,” I cried out, “God has sent someone to save us! They’ll be here soon, and I’ll tell them to get you out!” His only response was a faint moan and then silence.
Not long afterward, a voice called from the dark recesses ahead of me, “Is there anyone there?”
“Yes, yes!” I cried.
“There are several of us, some badly injured,” I answered. More picking. Then, “Do you see a light?”
“Yes!” I shouted back, “I see the light!” Our rescuers kept picking at the opening, and soon the light almost illuminated the area I was lying in.
“Can you see a way out following the light?” the rescuers called. “Yes, I’ll try!” I answered.
I shouted to the others on the second floor: “Over here, try to get yourselves over here! We can get out! Send the boy first!”
I began to drag myself forward over pieces of twisted iron, brick, glass, and concrete. ‘I must keep moving ahead,’ I thought. ‘I can’t stay here.’ I was close enough to the opening to reach a hose with an oxygen mask attached that was passed through the hole. I continued to inch along until I reached the narrow opening.
The rescuers pulled me out, one arm first, then the rest of my body. My clothing was torn, my body scraped. “How do you feel?” they asked. “Happy,” I answered.
When I reached the street, there was a maze of people, some assisting injured ones, some digging in the ruins of the building. Anguished onlookers converged on me, wanting to know in what part of the building I had been.
“Have you seen my wife?” “Have you seen my father?” “Did you see my sister?” they asked desperately. I could only answer: “There are many more trapped and alive down there, so keep trying.”
Others were rescued from the same opening as I, some severely injured. Many others, though, died from asphyxiation. On the street just outside the building was a pitiful sight—a row of corpses. Mr. Quijano and the young boy from the second floor were among these unfortunate ones.—As told by Antonieta de Urbina.
[Box on page 22]
The Rubén Darío Building
The five-story Rubén Darío Building, located in the center of downtown San Salvador, housed coffee shops, barber and beauty shops, dental offices and laboratories, shoe stores, and business offices. Closely pressed around the outside of the building was a group of vendors selling everything from snacks to lottery tickets. Television news reported that as many as 400 persons died inside, either crushed to death, asphyxiated, or burned; several of Jehovah’s Witnesses were among them. At least 92 of the trapped victims were rescued alive, although some of these died afterward from injuries sustained within the building.
[Pictures on page 23]
The Rubén Darío Building before and after the quake struck.
Antonieta de Urbina was rescued alive early in the evening of the first day of the quake