Anxious hours for Chileans in Md.

They watch TV, try to get through to loved ones via phone and e-mail after devastating quake

February 28, 2010|By Childs Walker | childs.walker@baltsun.com

Members of Baltimore's small Chilean community were glued to televisions or desperately trying to get through to their families via e-mail or jammed phone circuits as information trickled in about the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that jolted the South American country early Saturday.

Relatives and friends described cracked roads, horrendous noise, windows breaking and dishes clattering to the floor to Ricardo and Cecilia Yazigi of Ruxton, who grew up in the capital, Santiago.

After learning of the quake about 9 a.m., the Yazigis spent several frustrating hours failing to reach dozens of close family members and friends. Most live in or near Santiago, which lies about 200 miles from the earthquake's epicenter and was spared the worst of the damage. When they finally contacted a few people by phone or e-mail, the reports were reassuring - plenty of damage and panic but no one injured.

Nevertheless, Ricardo Yazigi worried about his elderly mother, who lives alone and could not be reached late Saturday afternoon. One of his wife's brothers lives in Chillan, much closer to the epicenter, and the family had not heard from him.

"It's virtually impossible to get through," said Yazigi, a doctor at Greater Baltimore Medical Center who came to the United States in 1985. "We still don't know. That's the hardest part."

"Oh my gosh, it's so scary," Cecilia Yazigi added. "We cannot reach our family."

Juanita Koch, who lives in North Baltimore, said her family was safe and accounted for by Saturday afternoon. She grew up in Concepcion, the big city nearest the quake's epicenter, and was worried about friends there.

"It's amazing that as bad as it is, the [death] count isn't as large as it could've been," said Koch, who has lived in the United States since 1961.

Reports Saturday evening put the death toll at more than 200. It was expected to rise.

"It's going to be difficult because of the electricity and the damage to the roads, but I think they're going to be OK," Koch said.

She noted that Chilean President Michelle Bachelet made it to her office within 30 minutes of the early morning disaster.

"Chile is not a place where people have to wonder, 'Where are the people who are supposed to be taking care of them?' " Koch said.

Bachelet attended Western Junior High School in Bethesda for a year when her father was stationed at the Chilean Embassy in Washington. She spoke by phone with President Barack Obama, who offered condolences and said the United States stands ready to assist with rescue and recovery, according to the White House.

Chileans endure smaller earthquakes routinely and, much like Californians, treat them as an expected nuisance, the Yazigis said. But Ricardo Yazigi said he experienced a bad quake as a teenager in the early 1960s.

"You feel like it's never going to end, although it lasts only a few minutes" he said. "You feel an inability to do anything. It's a tremendous horror. You expect it, but when it comes, it's like you've never felt one before. You cannot be prepared."

"It's really scary because you see the walls moving," his wife recalled. "You're just thinking, 'When are they going to break?' "

Buildings in Chile are built with earthquakes in mind, and many sway with the tremors, the Yazigis said. They credited such preparation for a death toll that, at least initially, fell far short of the hundreds of thousands who perished when a 7.0-magnitude quake hit Haiti on Jan. 12.

"We're holding strong here," an architect friend said in an e-mail to the Yazigis. "The buildings are ready."

"People there, in general, are well-prepared because they have so many earthquakes," Koch said. "It could have been so much worse, really."

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