THE EARTHQUAKE OF MAY 31, 1970
Industrial Avenue of Chimbote
after the earthquake
The afternoon of May 31, 1970, in Chimbote was like any other Sunday. People were enjoying a sunny day. No one suspected that at twenty-three minutes after three a terrible earthquake would destroy all human endeavor with deadly ferocity, as if nature had wanted to scatter on the ground all the bones of the city to search in its rubble to find out what kind of steel the character of its people was made of.
At this hour, the speakers of the old San Isidro Cinema were dominating my barrio with music by Javier Solís and Leo Dan. Songs like Nothing More Than Shadows and Dear Santiago were being played before the afternoon matinee started. Across from my house in “La Pampa of April 21” (currently the site of Santa María Reina High School), classic football matches were being played before a large crowd that filled the four sides of the field. And beyond the Old Cemetery, in the Vivero Forestal Stadium (today, named Gómez Arellano), Chimbote’s Aperture Football League Championship was taking place, which should have finished that afternoon, but never really ended.
One minute before the fateful hour I left my father’s convenience store, located at the corner of Aviacion Avenue and Union Street, and walked towards our bathroom at the far end of the back yard. When I was in front of the door I stopped for an instant and heard the noise coming from La Pampa, and wondered if I should also be there, alongside my younger brother Alberto, who at that moment was part of the crowd.
Barrio San Pedro school in Chimbote. In
the middle of the desolation caused by the
earthquake, a young child represents hope
I was still holding this thought in my mind, when suddenly the music of the cinema and the noise of La Pampa were eclipsed by the fearful barking of all the neighborhood dogs. Immediately after, an unknown sound invaded the world. It started with a rough, dry and powerful murmur, and switched to the apocalyptic roar of a mythological beast breaking its chains in the depth of the earth. Then a huge cataclysm shook Chimbote and the whole Ancash region. I felt the need for my mother, and ran in search of her.
While fleeing, some walls collapsed along my way. Once in the street I witnessed the most dramatic scene I have ever seen in my whole life: on both sides of Aviacion Avenue, and as far as my eye could see, I saw arms outstretched towards the sky. People of all ages and conditions, some standing up and others on their knees, were screaming out their sins and asking for forgiveness from the God of Creation. Then my mother saw me, and said to me, "It's the end of the world, we must remain together."
The day of the earthquake I was only nine years old, but the forty-five seconds it lasted remain vivid in my mind, immune to contamination from forgetfulness. They stay with me always and forever. Those scenes undoubtedly will repeat themselves for a last time in the final movie that I will see before the curtains are closed, and the light goes out.
I remember that while the earth was shaking, my mom counted her kids to see whether all of them were there, "One, two, three, four, five..." But three were not there on the street with us: Alberto and Olga (the two youngest), and Roger (the oldest). Alberto had been watching the game at La Pampa, and Olga was in her bed. She was born on Christmas 1965 and never walked until she was five years old. She was born with a disability and half of her body was trapped inside an armor of plaster.
Amid the stampede of people running from La Pampa, Alberto would come back home by his own means. Later that afternoon my mother told us that Alberto did not seem to run, but to float in the air with outstretched arms, as if he wanted to embrace her across the distance. The story of Olga and Roger was different.
All these memories roam in the dark room of my memory, and need only a sliver of light to return. From 1994 I lived in London for nearly a decade. I resided in seven different neighborhoods of the British capital, and each house was close to the underground lines or the above ground trains. Each train shook the earth in such a way that my heart skipped a beat, thinking it was an earthquake. In 2003 I moved to New Hampshire, USA, where I live in a town located a few steps from the railroad. Freight trains close to one hundred cars long run this way. The rumble of the trains instinctively brings me back to May 31, 1970. And that is because the earthquake’s children are marked with a cross of ashes, like Aureliano Buendía’s sons in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Chimbote’s Gálvez Bridge after the earthquake
(Source: Associated Press, Wirephoto, 1970)
During the earthquake’s first seconds, as we were all rushing to the street, my brother Roger ran towards the bedrooms of our house. Despite the fact that the day before he had severely dislocated his elbow playing basketball, and his right arm was hanging from a sling, he ran to Olga’s room and rescued her. That act was crucial. Once the quake ended, the family surveyed the damage to the house. A brick wall had fallen over in Olga’s bedroom and her bed was crushed flat to the ground.
That day Chimbote was devastated as if Attila The Hun's hordes had galloped over the city and left “no stone unturned". While it is true that my neighborhood never had beautiful large buildings, the San Francisco de Asís church was the exception. And it was also destroyed. The church comes to my memory in the shape of an ark, with low relief pelicans crafted on its walls, and the neighbors calling it “Noah’s Ark”.
The whole Ancash region was destroyed in forty-five seconds by the largest natural disaster in the history of Peru, and one of the most devastating earthquakes in the history of humankind. The quake’s epicenter was Chimbote.
Chimbote’s San Francisco de Asís church before the
earthquake (Photo: Courtesy of Miguel Koo Chía)
The next day, Chimbote rolled up its sleeves, buried its dead, and began the process of reconstruction. The barrios took part in a great communal organization. Crews of volunteers walked from street to street and house to house to clear rubble. International aid arrived generous and timely. “La Pampa of April 21” became a large camp with tents put up for those left homeless.
My brothers and I took part in the voluntary crews. At the end of each day we received a food ration consisting of frozen chicken meat, canned beans, a derivative of wheat called “Trigol” (to replace rice), cooking oil, and powdered milk. Lack of water was a serious problem, but families got it from holes opened in the ground. At home my mom filled every available bucket and pot, let the dirt settle, and then the clear water was used.
Around that time Chimbote and Perú were hungry for good news. And they got it. The very same day of the earthquake, the 1970 Football World Cup in Mexico began. Forty-eight hours later, after being unable to qualify for world tournaments for forty years, the Peruvian national team entered the football field wearing black armbands to debut against Bulgaria. The crowd observed a minute of silence in honor of our tragedy. After trailing by two to zero, Perú won by three goals to two. And four days later Perú beat Morocco by three goals to zero. The popular polka of the time, "Champion Perú, champion Perú...”, echoed in every corner of Chimbote and across the country.
Chimbote today, a beautiful, large, and optimistic city
(Photo: Courtesy of Rubén Pucutay Bermudez)
Weeks later, Chimbote’s People’s Team, José Gálvez Football Club, in a Vivero Forestal Stadium that had lost its walls, gates, and stands in the earthquake, began a sensational campaign that would triumphantly end up in The National Stadium of Lima. And for the first time ever, Chimbote qualified for the top league of Peruvian professional football. Hence our anthem was born: "To Chimbote, beautiful land, today I sing for you...in music the Rumbaney, in volleyball the city’s team, in football José Gálvez, José Gálvez is a champion."
Sometimes people need a great challenge to find out what kind of steel they are made of. Chimbote rose from its ruins, and emerged as a Colossus to meet again with its destiny. Today it is a large, beautiful and optimistic city. As for me, I have always believed that the earthquake of May 31, 1970, baptized with fire the unity of my family.
New Hampshire, USA
May 31, 2014
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