Thursday, January 21, 2010

Remembering an earthquake


The earthquake in Haiti sent me back in my mind to Mexico City, during and after the 8.1 magnitude earthquake on September 19, 1985. Earthquakes do that to me, and I expect to everyone who's been through a very serious one. I dug out my old earthquake photos from the boxes under the spare bed.
It was the worst thing I'd ever experienced, the closest I've come to a near-death experience. The fear was inescapable - aftershocks, real or imagined, shattered my sleep every night and I'd wake up already running toward the nearest doorway. I could see the same fear in the eyes of nearly everyone else in that vast city, especially when the subway stopped and the tunnel went dark, or the lights started swinging in a restaurant.

Looking at the photos now, it's easy to see how the damage in Haiti is so many times worse than even the Mexico City quake. For millions of people there is nowhere to escape from the destruction, no corner of safety.
It's strange how it's only now, seeing the earthquake in Haiti, that I finally connect the dots of my long-ago experience. For several anxious days (for friends and family) my Canadian friends and I were listed as missing. We'd called the Canadian Consulate to report that we were alive and well, but unknown to us the message wasn't passed on. I was busy covering the disaster for the Mexico City News, unaware that we were "among the missing." Those asked to look for me didn't seem to notice my byline, published in the paper each day.
I remember attending with my notebook at a soccer stadium in the city, turned into a makeshift morgue. Gruesome lists posted locations and details of the unidentified bodies and body parts that had been recovered. The Canadian consul was there too, carrying out the grim task of looking for dead Canadians. I remember interviewing him. Only now do I realize that my own name was probably on the list of people he was looking for in that open-air morgue.
Lucky me, I was not injured, lost no friends, relatives, or even personal property in the 1985 earthquake. There's no comparison to the thousands of people who died then. There's no comparison to the unidentified thousands who lost their lives, and the horrific situation that continues for the survivors in Haiti. But I think that for anyone who's been through such a disaster, you never see the world the same way again.

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