Does a single story of a survivor of a catastrophic natural disaster capture the essence and depth of the catastrophe? Is it even necessary to reflect on one personal story, rife with abstract or factual implications? I don’t often like to talk about the earthquake that rocked my native Leninakan and all of northern Armenia, but breaking that convenance of silence, I want to share my story.
Art class had just begun in our newly constructed School No. 9 in Leninakan. Our fifth grade class was on the first floor. Mr. Aydinyan was revealing the secrets of drawing an apple. With trembling hands we began sketching the three apples hugging one another that had been set upon a pedestal. I was in the second last seat of the row nearest the window. Seated at a distance of about 9-10 meters away from the pedestal, the details of the apples were not distinguishable, although it seemed that the shape of the first apple was coming together on my paper.
The minutes were reluctantly moving forward and the delicious appearance of the apples had diverted our attention elsewhere. There was still one more class to go before the end of the school day, but the bleak fog outside the window didn’t have a particularly welcoming feel and we weren’t even thinking of leaving for home.
The fog looked different that day, it was gloomy, mysterious. I don’t remember ever seeing that kind of insidious fog in Leninakan, and never would again.
The noise and deafening shaking at 11:41 a.m. would not have averted our attention had one of those apples not tumbled to the ground. Many of the students stood up stunned, with the expectation of an explanation by Mr. Ardinyan. A few, without permission, ran out of the classroom, which for some reason startled me. For about 10 seconds, I couldn’t make a decision – to run out to the hall with the other students, wait for instructions by the teacher, or continue to wait to understand what was happening. The building continued to shake with indescribable speed and frequency. I realized that in a blink of an eye, a queue had formed near the door, which transformed into a throng and then subsided. I too, barely, overcoming the challenge of the swaying floor with drunken-like steps hurried to overcome the distance of seven-eight school desks to get to the door and join my classmates in the hallway. A few steps short of reaching the other side of the threshold, I remembered I had forgotten my gradebook. Leaving the classroom and more so going home without it did not seem to be a good idea. I had a special reason to be boastful that day, since only two hours before I had gotten an excellent grade in math. It would have given my mother special joy to see it. The thought of making her happy made me stop and return to my desk, overcoming the distance of the same severn-eight desks, which took another eight-ten seconds of my time. I was near my desk. The escalating tremors had tossed my drawing book on the floor and my coloring pencils were nowhere to be seen.
At that moment, the back wall of the classroom started to slowly collapse and a hole of about a meter in diameter appeared. Since we were on the ground floor, I could see the windows of the neighboring house in the distance. The hole was growing larger quickly and was ready to swallow everything and everyone. At this point I was already firmly holding on to my brown backpack which had my gradebook with my perfect score in math marked in red ink, which made me consider crawling out of the hole. The piercing sound coming from the tremors would not stop, it had even deafened the screams of the students, the noise of everything falling out of the classroom shelves and the sound of breaking glass. A moment later, the idea of going out through the unidentified cavity in the wall dissipated, especially since no one was going out that way. It was again time to try and make a run for the door. I threw one last glance at my desk and then the door; three large steps got me to a space between two desks and just as I was instinctually flexing my muscles in preparation for a fourth step, I felt an indescribable blow to my head and everything ended… maybe started…
I’m no more… I’m in darkness… I no longer breathe… I see nothing… I’m dead… I don’t know how much time had passed when I felt that my eyelids were moving and I realized that I can also move my head, and then my hands. It was gravely silent, a tomb like darkness, no sound, no movement, only non-existence and the weight of the slowly descending dust. I understand nothing: Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing here? What is happening to me? The first sound to pierce my ear following these indescribable moments was a single cough, then two, three, six, seven. The dust had engulfed us in a final attempt to suffocate everything. One of the coughs was not that of a ten year old, it was Mr. Aydinyan’s stifling cough. I’m not sure why, but I was happy. Whether it was because I had survived and found myself on the fixed chair of a school desk, or because in this meter and a half in diameter tubular shelter of mine, I had ended up close to some of my friends and my teacher. They were next to me, I could feel their breath, heaving, uneasy movements and silence.
Some minutes later, when everything had calmed down, I asked who was near. I heard familiar and affectionate responses – it was Arthur, Zaruhi and the others. Mr. Aydinyan told us what had happened, but I could sense how he was barely speaking and it was becoming more and more difficult to understand what he was trying to say. When we asked him to speak louder, he answered that he could not speak any louder because he had a metal rod jammed through his chest. I asked my classmates, who had now become my co-inhabitants of the ruins, what injuries they had sustained. It turned out that all of them had serious injuries and fractures.
On December 7, 1988, at 11:41 a.m. local time, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake with a maximum intensity of devastation hit Armenia, effecting 40 percent of the country.
The devastation was so great that for the first time since World War II, the Soviet Union asked for international help; 113 countries responded.
My back felt heavy, as did the right side of my head. I thought my back was seriously injured and when I ran my fingers through my dusty hair, I discovered that a small round bump had appeared. When I tried to move my back, I felt it easily detach from the seat indicating that nothing serious had happened. Laying down like that was no longer comfortable. I started feeling the ground with my hands, preparing to make myself comfortable on the floor and continue my conversation with my friends.
We started to talk more frequently, and the words and ideas that were exchanged that day are forever engraved in my memory. We first communicated our conviction that we were definitely going to be found and rescued. Of course it was difficult to know the source of our self-confidence. Probably it stemmed from the fact that at that age you have not yet had the time to reconcile with the inevitability of death. The glimpse of the idea of being rescued was enough to set us yelling in unison “Help, save us!” We screamed with no consideration for our vocal cords, we screamed will all our essence, in self-oblivion, non-stop for about half an hour, and since I was the least injured, I screamed the loudest. There was no response, no sound, no… we understood there was no use in calling for help, no one was going to help us…
The next idea that evolved into the most important discussion was about the “after.” We were convinced that after being rescued from our hellish shelter, we were going to be all alone in the city, that our parents were also dead and they would never know of our rescue. This last thought infected all of us and we started to cry with self-abandon, first silently and then more and more loudly. I was thinking that my parents were at work, that they would not have survived but my sister, who was at home with my grandmother, must have survived because the house was not a high-rise and it would not have collapsed. We made plans for our near and distant future, we were imagining the impossible, we were dreaming of being rescued and living.
In the aftermath of the earthquake:
21 towns and 342 villages were devastated and another 58 were destroyed.
20,000 people were injured, 12,500 were hospitalized.
An estimated 25,000 people died, with the highest numbers of loss of life registered in Gyumri (15,000 -17,000) and in Spitak (4000).
… and all of a sudden, human voices: “Is anyone in there?” As if by the wave of a magic wand there was instantaneous silence … they had found us… and we started screaming with increased abandon, like lunatics and with manic frequency. All of a sudden, blows came down on the panel block hanging above us. Pieces of cement and dust started falling on us more and more intensely. I realized that I should use my pioneer’s necktie. Like the hero in an American Western, I tied it up around my mouth and nose to endure the massive wave of dust. I advised my classmates to follow my example; I don’t know if they did or not. We were sure that our salvation was directly behind the 25 cm of cement. They will eliminate that distance using iron tools and we would be saved. Suddenly I felt the panels move and our small shelter was under the threat of being crushed. Mr. Aydinyan barely uttered, “They are dismantling from the wrong place, it can collapse on us.” I don’t know what inspired my confidence and driven by my teacher’s guiding instruction, I started yelling and urging the rescuers to start working from the schoolyard. I was convinced that they were trying to get to us from the street in front of the school but they needed to do it from the schoolyard.
… there was silence again and doubt set in among all of us. Did they hear us? Maybe we should not have given them instructions, maybe we should have stayed silent? Maybe they were not hearing us at all? Maybe the noise of the rescue efforts, the dust were mere illusions? The girls started sobbing and we slowly returned to our unfinished discussion and planning. I imagined seeing uprooted trees, survivors hanging from ropes being rescued by helicopters, pieces of broken windows everywhere on the streets at every step. We all fell silent again and there was no sound coming from any direction.
We could feel the time pass, we started guessing what time of day it might be. Some were insisting that it was 12:30, others said a couple of days had passed by already. Surrounded by uncertainty, a feeling of alarm was growing inside us all.
Minutes and then hours seemed to be flying off the hands of the clock and I no longer recall the thoughts that came and went in those hours. The air was unbearable. We wait, we are hopeful that they know where we are, we imagine people standing outside trying to figure out how to rescue us. I was wondering where all those dear to me were, was it possible that I would never see them again, was it possible that they were all dead? Could it be that my parents would never hold and kiss me? Hungry and parched from thirst, we could feel that we no longer had the energy to talk, the suffocation, the dust in our nostrils and lungs was making breathing impossible. I felt I should try to stay awake and not give in to the temptation to sleep. Soon we all fell asleep. I don’t remember if I dreamt or not, probably not, because likely you don’t dream within a dream.
We were suddenly surprised to hear a voice, “Hang on kids, only a little way to go, we are almost there.” We thought it was an illusion; we started comforting one another, saying we only thought that we heard it. Mr. Ardinyan, who probably was in too much pain to sleep, uttered the inconceivable. He explained that while we were asleep, a group of people had been trying to reach us by digging through the ruins. I thought he was simply comforting us or that he too was simply dreaming. In any case, even if this was a dream and a plausible rescue scenario, then it was substantial enough to disturb our sleep. We all started to yawn lazily and discuss the new rescue scenario.
A little later, we heard the sound of a hammer or another blunt object quite near, it recurred, escalated and became frequent enough to be believed. We could feel that the breath of rescue was nearing, we could feel the warmth of light nearing, we could feel an artificial light creeping in through the cracks. After noticing the first ray of light, we heard a hoarse voice, “Tell me your names.” Without waiting for one another we called out our names. A couple of minutes later the same voice asked another question: “Is there an Arman amongst you?” We yelled “No” in unison.
Thanks to the efforts of the population and rescue teams, 45,000 people were brought out from the rubble (survivors and deceased).
The last survivors, six friends trapped in the basement of a nine-story building, were rescued 35 days after the earthquake, when rescue efforts had already ceased and cleanup work had commenced.
130 factories were destroyed and 170,000 people were out of work.
The question following the last “Yes” was different, “What is the name of your uncle?” I yelled, “I have two, Khoren and Hunan.”
The voices came closer, only a wooden bookcase separated us. We could feel the saw at work, cutting the bookcase in two. Soon after, I saw the face of the rescuer approaching us: A velvet bearded giant, around 40 years old. He was in a hurry but was simultaneously complaining in the Ararat dialect, about how useless the saw was and said, “And then they say this is a city of craftsmen, could not get a normal saw to cut this bookcase faster and be done with it.” I try to start a dialogue with the rescuer who was trying to bore into our ruinous shelter. “My grandpa is a craftsman, if my uncle is outside, tell him to go get a decent saw from our house,” I said in a hurry trying to at least be helpful to the giant moving the saw back and forth at an unimaginable speed. He did not answer, instead silently but with additional vigor continued his work. One more instant and the last barrier was removed.
“Hurry up, get out of here.”
The long awaited words were finally heard. Without rushing, all my friends went out through that small opening. When it was my turn, I dragged my brown school bag along, which was by my side the whole time. It would not fit through the opening intended for us, or maybe I had put it at a wrong angle. In any case I wasted some precious moments, which probably angered our saviour who urged me to leave my bag aside. I insisted that I needed it, he promised to get it for me later. He pulled me out and as I was being dragged by his awe inspiring hands and by the hands of those who were not far behind him, I noticed the lifeless bodies of some of my classmates. Death, only a couple of centimeters away from me, had done its deed and deprived at least two of my friends of their lives. When with the last push I was finally released, I saw the stars above.
It was night, dark and cold. Nevertheless, the cars and the bonfires of those gathered at the school yard illuminated the surroundings. It had barely sunk in that I had been rescued when my uncle embraced me tightly. He started to smile and lifted me up as he carried me down the ruins. I said two things, “Where are my mother and father?” and “I can go down on my own.” The first received a brief answer, that they were at the school yard, waiting for me and to the second, he said, “You can not walk,” thinking that I was heavily injured and couldn’t feel my injuries. We got down from the enormous pile of ruins in a flash of a second. Soon I felt my parents’ tearful exclamations. Cutting through the queue of parents waiting for a miracle, they appeared in front of my uncle and I, and as if in disbelief (in what they were seeing), they started to feel me to see if anything was broken, embraced me tightly, and asked the same question a couple of times, “What did you break?” I uttered momentarily, “All is well.” My answer was like a long awaited password, they were overcome with smiles and carried me running out of the school yard in an instant.
I started to bombard my parents with questions about what had really happened, about what had happened to each of our relatives. My father held me tight and looking into my eyes said two things, “It is five in the morning, you were under the ruins for more than 18 hours.” Not waiting for my response, he added, “When we were praying for your rescue at the schoolyard, I promised that if we find you, I’ll light 301 candles in Etchmiadzin.” I was too confused to understand what he meant.
On December 24, I learned that only 15 of my classmates had survived, most had died in the school hallway. The same day I went by the school and in a carefully piled up heap of belongings, I immediately noticed my brown backpack waiting for me.The next day, on December 25, we went to the Mother Cathedral of Etchmiadzin with my father. It took us an hour and a half to light the 301 candles he had vowed. I do not like to talk about the 7th of December, because it causes me pain, because despite ourselves, on the day of the earthquake, my friends and I ceased to be children. Death brushed by me that day, that day the lives of thousands were cut short, many fates drowned that day, everything turned upside down on that day, we ceased being what we used to be and our backs were broken, on that day tragedy set roots in Leninakan, that day… that day…