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One and a Half Minutes

I awaken to the bed swaying, gently at first, and because I’m half asleep and not from here, I think, Cool, a tremor. I’m just that naive.

Sitting up, I switch on the bedside lamp. It’s 3:34 a.m. The floor is shaking harder now, and I try to stand. A surge throws me backward.

Suddenly my 14th-floor Santiago hotel room comes alive, like an angry animal shaking a smaller one in its teeth. It lurches one way and then the other, and the air fills with the building’s inhuman noises: rumbles and groans, the screeching of metal. Around me, pictures thud against walls; drawers open and bang shut; window curtains shriek on their rods.

Then the lights go out.

Panic squeezes the breath from me. The cacophony is more unholy in the dark. Trying to cross the rolling floor toward my suitcase at the foot of the bed, I curse myself for having slept naked. I am tossed against the corner of the desk and then to the ground. Lying on my back I yank on pants, then T-shirt and sandals, even as I think, Just get out! Something heavy crashes near my head.

I shouldn’t even be here now. After three idyllic weeks as instructor at a writers’ retreat outside Santiago, my flight home from Chile the previous evening, Feb. 26, had been cancelled because of engine trouble. I’d considered myself lucky to be put up at a luxury hotel.

As I pull myself to standing, sensations and images swarm my mind. I realize I’m whimpering. I don’t consciously think that I won’t see my husband and sons again. I just sense this, profoundly.

I careen my way to the bathroom and steady myself under the door frame. Isn’t this what one is supposed to do? But the building is writhing and this doesn’t feel safe.

Hauling open the door of my room, I expect to find people. The lights have burst on and it’s blinding in the still-quaking hallway. Incredibly, there’s no one about. My mind is screaming, but I don’t even call for help.

My room is at the end of the corridor. I brace my door open with one leg so it doesn’t lock behind me, and push the stairwell door. Beyond it I see chunks of ceiling plaster pelting down, white dust clouding the air and coating the steps. Someone tell me what to do.

I go back into my room. Now the quake is subsiding. Furniture is askew, and the floor is littered with objects. Two large lamps have fallen, one just inches from where I pulled on my clothes. I realize nothing I’m doing makes sense, but grabbing my backpack containing passport and wallet, I run out again.

A middle-aged man is approaching, his face impassive. As he passes me he says, “We should go down.” I say, “Okay,” and follow him to the stairs, but somehow I lose sight of him. I take the landings too fast, feeling light-headed, sandals skidding on plaster.

On a lower floor I merge with a river of people in various stages of undress. We wend our way outside to the tennis courts, where a crowd of several hundred are gathering, comforting one another. Some are crying; all are dazed. A woman looks like she is about to faint and I steady her. Seeing frightened children in parents’ arms, my selfish thought is Thank God my kids aren’t here.

Soon hotel staff are setting up chairs and passing around bottled water. They offer us tablecloths to wrap around ourselves against the night chill, and slippers for those who are barefoot. They seem remarkably calm. They too must be afraid.

We drift about in tablecloths like ghosts in a school play. A kind man finds me a chair and we talk. My expression feels blank, but my heart is hammering. The staff order us to move away from the building – what do they know? – and 20 minutes after the big quake, we feel the first of many aftershocks. I have to remind myself to breathe.

I wander, and after a while there’s a tap on my shoulder and I turn to feel arms around me. It’s Mary, a warm Chilean-Canadian woman I’d met last night. She and her husband, who live in Toronto, would have been on my flight. She kisses my cheek and I kiss her back.

“Thank goodness,” she says. “I told Victor, ‘We have to find her. She’s all alone.’ ” She rubs my arms.

“Are you okay?” I ask, and she nods. It’s all I can do not to cry.

We all feel lucky to be alive, but our relief is tinged with survivor’s guilt. Farther south, we soon learn, the 8.8-magnitude earthquake has left many dead and others homeless, and tsunamis may be on the way.

In some hotel rooms ceilings collapsed; TVs and mirrors and glassware shattered; water pipes burst. But at least we have electricity, water, food. Outside the hotel, many do not. Some of us suffer cuts and bruises, but none are seriously injured. Still, dozens refuse to return to their rooms for the next few nights, turning the hotel grounds into a refugee camp. Why I return to mine, I’ll never know.

For four anxious days we await news of when and how we’ll be transported home. I e-mail my family and friends, and two writers I met at the retreat visit – but here, Mary and Victor, who stay by me, are my lifelines.

A minute and a half. That’s how long the quake lasted, they say. But those who experienced it will never forget that eternity of adrenalin-charged panic. And that soul-deep, if fleeting, sense of finality.

Five sleepless nights later, a rescue flight carries us home.

(Published as “My Earthquake Experience,” Facts & Arguments, The Globe and Mail, March 12, 2010)