When I heard about the earthquake that happened in Mexico on September 19, 2017 the earthquake in Romania from forty years ago came to my mind because they both had similar magnitudes. I know what kind of damages a calamity like this can create. I am going to tell you how I survived this earthquake. I remember every little thing that went on that night. So, get a cup of coffee, put your feet up, and listen to my story. I was wearing a dark orange turtleneck sweater and a pair of green wool trousers. I kept rubbing my arms and legs. I was cold. I only had one slipper. After a while, I got tired of standing on one foot. Every so often I had to change the slipper from one foot to another and try to stay warm. I was frightened and confused. It was pitch black outside.
People were trying to find their way out in the street. A lot of them wore pajamas. Luckily, no one got stuck in the elevator. About fifteen minutes later, everybody in our building unit made it safely outside. They were all waiting for someone to explain what just had happened.
Before my mom had left for work that afternoon, I asked her desperately to take me with her. With tears in my eyes, I grabbed her skirt and refused to let it go. She was very surprised to see me acting this way. It was not the first time I was going to be home alone.
My dad was out of town on business. He was going to return in a few days. My brother was in his first year at the Military Academy and was required to be on campus. My sister worked the afternoon shift. Her husband was believed to have been out of the country for a couple of months.
My mom took me with her to work many times before. I could not quite understand why she did not want me to go that day. I think it was my homework. For some inexplicable reason I did not want to stay inside the apartment. I went outside to play right after my mom had left. On school days, I returned from my playing way before dark. The weather was unusually warm that night. So, I decided to stay a little longer. It was around 8:45 P.M. when I came back home.
I was afraid to stay by myself in the apartment especially at night. Without changing my clothes, I started doing my homework for French class. I turned on the TV. It was movie night. There was a Bulgarian movie playing whose title was translated as “Sweet and Sour”. I didn’t pay too much attention to the movie because I was concentrated on my school work. I kept the movie playing anyway just to make some noise and not feel lonesome.
The cuckoo clock went off at the same time when the doorbell rang. Who could have been? I didn’t expect anybody at that hour. I knew that my mom and my sister would get home around midnight. My neighbors had never called this late. They knew I was home by myself and did not want to scare me.
At first, I did not want to answer the door. My heart started pounding fast in my chest. I had sunk so much into my chair that my chin almost hit the table. I was scared. The doorbell kept ringing. I tiptoed into the kitchen looking for a chair. I placed quietly the chair next to the front door. I climbed on the chair and looked carefully through the peephole. I could not believe my eyes. I thought I saw my sister’s husband. How could this be possible? I looked again. Suddenly, I was overcome with joy. It was my sister’s husband!
I rushed to open the door and almost lost my balance. I didn’t think I would be so happy to see him. His assignment changed at the last minute. I wasn’t going to spend the rest of the night by myself after all. We worked together on my French homework and then watched the movie.
It was around 9:20 P.M. All of the sudden, the TV image got distorted. We didn’t think it was something to worry about. Our TV liked acting up sometimes. We knew that the screen would come back to normal in a few seconds. This time, it went completely blank.
The TV shut down when the floor started shaking. Everything in that room started to move. The large living room windows made a growling noise. I didn’t know where to look first. I was only able to see my mother’s flower ceramic pots falling in the balcony. I had no idea what was happening. My brother-in law looked right at me with a straight face and said: “This is an earthquake. We need to leave the apartment immediately”.
That was the first time I heard the word “earthquake“. I thought it had to be something serious if he grabbed me by my hand and ran towards the front door without any hesitations. It was definitely not a good time to ask questions.
He managed to quickly put on his shoes and hand me my slippers. We were lucky that we were still dressed. We stepped outside the apartment. The power was still on. He quickly found his key and tried to lock the front door. I could tell he was nervous. He was taking too long. He managed only to close the door behind us. The electricity got cut off at the same time. None of our immediate neighbors came out yet.
We lived at 10th floor which was the last floor of the building. 10-floor buildings were ones of the tallest residential constructions in Bucharest. With no time to waste we literally flew down the stairs as fast as we could. We were jumping over each set of eight stairs. I was only wearing socks. My feet were badly hurting every time we landed on the cement platform between floors. He did not let go of my hand at any time. I was holding my slippers with the other hand and trying desperately to keep up with him. We could not afford to make any stops.
After our jump over the first set of stairs we sensed the building moving in a different direction. We didn’t know how well the building was built. We were lucky that the platform between floors stairs took both our falls without cracking completely. We could see this crack the next day. In other buildings, people weren’t that lucky. They got caught between floors and couldn’t make it outside alive.
While we were running down the stairs some of our neighbors opened their doors to ask us what was happening. They were very disoriented. My sister’s husband kept telling them to get out of the building because there was an earthquake. That was when I learned that I wasn’t the only one that didn’t know what an earthquake was. There hadn’t been much talk about earthquakes in the past 30 years.
About a minute later, the building stopped moving. At that time, we were at the second floor. We kept running. We were the first ones outside. I was holding only one slipper. It seemed like a warm night. Unfortunately, 20 minutes later, the temperature dropped abruptly where it was supposed to be at this time in March.
When the earthquake ended, we could still see people coming out of the building. Every one looked baffled. They were talking and trying to explain what just had happened. My brother-in law’s mother lived in the unit next to ours. First, he had made sure I was all right. Then he rushed to find her. She made it outside and was looking for him as well. When we finally got together were all standing close to each other to keep warm.
Some people went back into the building to get things like warm clothes and candles. My brother-in law went back to our apartment to lock the front door and try to find my slipper on the staircase. He tripped over furniture, books, and flower pots that fell on the living room floor and couldn’t find anything. It was too dark.
He came back and went right away to his mother’s apartment to look for clothes. Her apartment was located at a lower level and much easier to access. He could only find one blanket. He gave it to me because I didn’t have a coat and was freezing.
People did not realize how dangerous it was to go in and out the building after an earthquake. There was no way of telling if our building was still stable. No one heard of aftershocks either. Who could think straight at such time?
After we calmed down a little we started to think about the rest of our family. It was closed to midnight. We were still waiting for my mom and my sister when my dad showed up unexpectedly carrying his suitcase. I could not believe it. We hadn’t expected him until a few days later. What an odd coincidence!
We all had become very worried about my mom and my sister. My brother-in law decided to leave and pick up my sister from work. When he saw buses stopped at random spots he realized that there were other districts without electricity. My sister was able to catch one of the last buses by luck. He met her at the bus stop.
It was past midnight. My mom hadn’t made it home yet. We had become very impatient. All of the sudden, I saw someone trying anxiously to make way through the crowd. It was my mom. She was crying and asking our neighbors if they knew where I was. I ran towards her. She was thrilled to see me. She almost lifted me up in the air and squeezed me tightly in her arms while she was still crying. She could not forget herself for leaving me alone that day. She couldn’t believe I was still alive. She was only wearing her uniform and a light sweater that someone loaned it to her at work. She was the first person to give people news about what was going on in the city.
We were amazed that she made it home all right knowing that all the public transit was stopped. My mom worked at a store in the center of Bucharest. It would take her about an hour on a regular day to make it back home if she took the trolley. She was lucky to be among the first ones to evacuate the store because her department was located at the first floor.
She left in such a hurry that she left all her belongings and personal information behind. Then she ran to the bus stop as fast as she could. She got terrified when she realized there was no way to get home. The buildings were collapsing. People were screaming and running erratically. There was no power in the city either. It was dark and total chaos. Without wasting any time, she started to look around or help. I was the only person she had in mind during those moments.
She kept looking and spotted a bus. The driver was still inside. She went to ask him if the bus was still in service. The man said “no”. My mom started to panic. She asked him if he could make an exception and drive her home. At first, the man was surprised at such request and refused her.
Then she told him with tears rolling down her face that she had a little girl all alone at 10th floor. She dropped down on her knees and begged him to take her home. The driver was shocked and hesitant for a few seconds. He received strict orders to stop the service. He finally had a change of heart and told my mom to hop in. He drove away his bus with my mom as his only passenger. The trip that normally took an hour to do he did it in only ten minutes. My mom could not thank him enough for his effort.
Around 2 A.M., my family got safely together with the exception of my brother. We felt at ease because we knew he was in school. However, we had no idea what he was doing that night. We had received the first news from him a couple of days later.
We remained outside until dawn. We were afraid to go inside the building because we didn’t know if there were any damages. Some people were still talking. Others went back to sleep in their apartments. My family decided to spend the next three days at my sister’s place until things settled down. Our apartment was a wreck. We were all surprised to see that the only thing out of place in her apartment was a lamp that fell on the floor.
My mom had been grateful to my sister’s husband for the rest of her days for saving my life that night. I don’t know what I would have done if I had been all by myself in the apartment during the earthquake. I would have probably gotten hurt and been traumatized for who knows how long. I truly believe that there was something very strong and unquestionable out there that made possible for my family to be brought closer than we have ever been.
The days after
The following morning, we were able to see the damages and find out more about what happened. Our building had some serious cracks that got fixed a couple of years later. Everyone that was in the building that night was all right. We still hadn’t heard from my brother. A couple of days later, he called to tell us not to worry about him. He was considered military personnel and got sent with his team to help retrieving people from under the rubble. He was only nineteen years old. He was shaken up and refused to talk about that night for a long time. He had never seen so many dead people before.
The earthquake killed over 1,400 in Bucharest and wounded more than than 11,000. About 20 important personalities died. Thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed. Thousands of people were without shelter. The earthquake of March 4, 1977 was one of the worst earthquake disasters of the 1970s around the world. Romanian people remembered and had talked about this day for many years. Those that believed in superstitions said that there was no coincidence that the name of the movie played that night on TV was called “Sweet and Sour”. It was seen as a hint for what was going to happen.
Romania hadn’t had such a strong earthquake since 1940 (a magnitude of 7.7 on Richter scale). The 1977 earthquake had a magnitude of 7.2. Vrancea Mountains are the most seismically active part of Romania. As I mentioned before, many people had no idea what an earthquake was and what it could do. This earthquake scared a lot of people.
Media became more active about this subject. They realized that people needed to get some education about what to do during an earthquake. We finally learned that a lot of earthquakes are continuously taking place but not all are destructive. A couple of other strong earthquakes happened later in 1986 and 1990.
The damages could not be compared with those created by the 1977 earthquake. We believed for a long time that the most powerful earthquakes were taking place during night only until the 1990 earthquake happened during the day. It lasted for more than a minute. It was the longest minute of my life. That was the first time when I saw how buildings moved during an earthquake.
Featured Image: By USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
For more posts about my childhood in communist Romania see What It Meant to Be a Busy Child, My First and Only True Friend, I Made It to My First Real Christmas in America, and Taste I Could Never Forget