There I was on the third floor of a medical building in San José. A half hour early for my yearly exam, I sat patiently in my OB/ GYN’s waiting room. I had just passed my husband, Alan, a magazine and was about to fan through the pages of one I picked out… when all hell broke out.
At first I wasn’t sure what was going on. The windows behind me started to rattle, and then the coffee pot on the end table next to me began to shake. I heard people gasping. I don’t know whether it’s the years of ER work––something––but it takes a near apocalyptic event to get my adrenaline flowing. I watched as my doctor staggered out of her office and, hanging on the door frame, called out to her husband in an adjoining office. The secretary froze at her desk, her mouth forming a permanent Oh! expression. By now the walls were lashing back and forth and I could hear glass breaking inside the exam room. People screamed out in the hall. A loud rumble filled my ears. How I envision the end of the world.
“Manuel… Manuel.” My doc kept calling.
Any sense of fear I had was momentarily displaced by a sense of disbelief. I have been in earthquakes before but always out in the country and always in manageable situations, and by manageable I mean I could move to a place where I felt safer. I sat there in a room where these things don’t happen wearing on my face, I’m sure, the same surprised little Oh! look the secretary wore on hers. Then my Lizard Brain finally awoke, and I felt the jolt of fight or flight hormones course through my system leaving a taste of aluminum in my mouth.
I realized we were in the middle of a strong earthquake, and the overwhelming desire to flee took over. I imagined the building going down; Alan and I trapped under piles of concrete. Dead would be preferable to trapped as far as I’m concerned, my claustrophobia legend in the family. I have always said that if captured by “the enemy” all they would have to do to obtain information would be to place me in a small space and wait about 30 seconds. I’d even make things up for them.
Dr. Badilla’s husband emerged from his office saying, “Everyone please remain calm and stay seated.” As though there were much chance of standing with the building dancing the merengue all around us. Forty seconds can feel like a lifetime and that is about the duration of the first tremor to hit San José in last Thursday’s 6.1 magnitude earthquake.
As soon as the shaking stopped, I said to Alan, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
We squeezed out of the now crowded waiting room and bolted for the stairs. All nurses know where they are located in any given hospital, and we hit the deserted stair well, banging open the metal door. We were down and out of the building in seconds. Outside people milled around and most were on their cell phones trying to reach family. I tried to call our hired man, José, but realized with all the people attempting to make contact there was no way of getting through.
Then, deciding all was clear, we reentered the building and sat down in the lobby with a whole slew of people to watch the TV in amazement. The epicenter was about 20 miles north-northwest of San José and is an area Alan and I know well. We have often taken the scenic drive from Sarapiqui to San José, wrapping up around Volcan Poas in mountainous terrain filled with waterfalls and steep canyons, then down into the city. That road no longer exists after last Thursday. The footage local channel 7 showed was of complete devastation. I’ll include this link so you can see. If you don’t understand Spanish just fast forward to the film clips. The one toward the end is quite amazing.
While we sat watching, we could feel the aftershocks, replicas, some strong enough to rock the building again. They continued through the rest of the day and on into the night–– upwards of 2000, I’ve heard. Most were too small to be felt, although I counted about 15-20 of them in various offices around San José that afternoon.
Reports began to come in through the day. Initially, there was one fatality noted, a young child who was selling cookies to tourists as they passed. A slide buried her. Then other reports began to come in: 200 tourists stranded at a resort hotel at Varra Blanca, the road destroyed on either side. Villages cut off from rescue workers and hundreds upon hundreds of people rendered homeless within minutes.
Back in our hotel in the late afternoon we heard the death toll had climbed to three. Today, according to CNN it stands at 34. The Red Cross continues to work to locate all those listed as missing.
We are fine and at home again as of yesterday. Our hired man said they never felt a thing here in Punta Uva.