I don’t seem to remember a time when I had gone so far up the stairs of a building, but there I was trying not to step on the cracks that crawled to the walls and the ceiling, hoping I would make it back to the ground in one piece without having the building trembling under my feet.
The pale light of early hours in the morning of February 27th gleamed through the openings of the north wall in the damaged structure and I was there to reach the 19th floor; feeling like a knight trying to reach the top of a tower to rescue a lady in distress while the dragon that jealously guarded her access to freedom had temporarily fallen asleep.
It had all happened while we were on our way back from the basement that hosted a club; I had voted to stay a little longer because unlike the other two who had voted against me, I have always had the confidence to enjoy dancing on my own. We were on our way back on one of the main avenues of the capital and we understood something was going eerily wrong when the lights when down in the shops to our left as we drove by; from a well-known restaurant, a waitress ran outside trying to stop the cars in an attempt to prevent an accident or just as an irrational way to escape the growling of the earth. We then stopped the car –side to side the suspension of the vehicle shook us and we saw through the windshield how the flashes of the electric posts failing in the distance looked like a lightning storm. The image of the debris falling from the buildings at either side, the raising dust cloud and the underground noise crawled its way into our mobile bubble to finally translate as calamity in our chests –we knew people’s lives might have been expiring all around us and too, in the distance. We feared, hoped for the best; our hearts stopped when our loved ones came to our minds.
She was there, on the 19th floor; watching the news as if they came from another region of the globe, from another nameless nation with facts that interested almost no one. She told me about the bottle of juice she grabbed to survive off had her home collapsed to the ground and the hellish scraping noise of the pillars of structural steel rubbing one against the other. We drove her home to her parents and on our way picked up a couple that had their only child home alone. I had a shot at connecting a call and told my mother I was alive and that I was on my way to see my grandparents –they were fine.
I did not sleep that night. We visited both of the homes of the other members of the team after the first tremors had stopped. In one place just a few expensive bottles were among the damages while the other could only talk of broken pipe in the heating room on the top floor –we did have to kick a door open to get a family out of their apartment.
After visiting my grandparents, I went to see a friend but only her worried parents were home; she had gone to a club as I had, but she had not returned nor given signs of being alive. I closed my eyes on their couch trying over and over again my luck to reach her on the phone. I knew I had to leave.
As I walked to my mother’s I found a few of the neighbor’s walls had crumbled to ground; I was expecting the worst in her place but only a wall showed a crack or two. I sat there and in her room I had the chance to watch the television for the first time –the images of hundreds of what had been families’ homes were now but a dismantled sand castle, also struck by the sea. The earth had moved the sea when it moved, and the sea moved where once the earth and took with itself all it could; many of those eyes did not have a chance to fully open to the summer night before the wave rose above their heads.
I sat there, and for the first time I understood the magnitude of what had happened and how lucky I had been of having been in a car when it all went down. I sat there and in front of the television, and I cried.
I cried in other people’s pain, I cried in other people’s screams, in other people’s bleak desolation and fear.
A few weeks later, as scheduled, I left the country from a still damaged airport. I haven’t yet been back to that land; it’s been 7 years now.