I was in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which was a devastating 8.1 on the Richter scale. I cannot begin to imagine what an 8.9 earthquake feels like.
This current disaster in Japan reminded me of that terrifying morning.
On September 19, 1985, at 7:19 in the morning, I was awakened by my bed swaying as if it were on a boat in the ocean. I could hear my mom and my sisters outside, so I left my room and found them all standing beneath the doorway to my mother's bedroom (my dad had died the year before). We lived on the 10th floor of an apartment building and conventional wisdom was that that's where you stand, I don't know exactly why, but it has something to do with the supporting columns of the building. Nobody had ever heard of a contingency plan or emergency supplies or anything. The first thing that grabs your mind under the circumstances is that there is not much you can do, except wait it out and hope and pray the walls don't flatten you.
My mom attempted a few brave yet feeble jokes but, as this thing kept getting more intense, soon she was praying. If at the beginning the ground was swaying, at a certain point it started shaking. Every Mexican (we are all amateur experts on earthquakes) can tell you the difference between oscillatory quakes (swaying) and trepidatory quakes (shaking up and down). This one was both. At the time, I was a confirmed agnostic, but I could hear myself praying for this thing to stop. In the end, the quake lasted almost four minutes, which is an eternity. Besides the terrifying fact of the Earth moving below you, and you being totally powerless to stop it, I will never forget the sounds the building was making. The walls and columns were creaking loudly from inside, the windows were rattling and there was a hum of everything shaking everywhere. It was like noise and eerie quiet at the same time. Lamps, tchotchkes, everything sways and slips and bumps, but in our house nothing broke or fell down. We lived in an area with harder soil than downtown DF, which is built on a dried lake bed, has softer soil and always suffers much bigger damage in earthquakes. We turned on the TV and saw the morning news anchors sitting at their desk swaying and shaking, trying to remain calm and proceed with the news that an earthquake was in progress. Then the signal was lost. When that happened I got very scared. Later on, we found out their building had collapsed.
After what seemed forever, the thing stopped. There are many mini and not so mini aftershocks after a quake, but the feeling is so intense that you may feel the ground moving even if it isn't. It's like when you have spent many hours frolicking in the waves in the ocean, and at night you still feel like you are there. One way to corroborate is to look at the ceiling lamps. If they are swaying, it's still going on.
I went to the window and saw nothing unusual. All the tall condos surrounding us were intact. Everything seemed normal except for people, some in their pajamas, standing on the street looking rather dazed. It was then that I remembered that the day before I had met my architect friend Arturo for coffee and we talked about earthquakes for a long time. We talked about quakes because it was an unusually, oppressively hot day. One of us said, "let's hope this doesn't mean there's gonna be a quake". When the shaking stopped I ran to the phone and tried calling him. I don't remember if I was able to reach him. Phone service was spotty or down. When we turned on the radio, we started hearing about the horrific devastation downtown. Many buildings collapsed. Because it was still early, many people were still at home. Many government buildings, including the enormous General Hospital, collapsed as well, no doubt aided by shoddy construction. My high school chemistry teacher, a sweet woman, died in a government school. The government response was incredibly clueless and incompetent. The president of the country went MIA. Some idiot in the government said we didn't need help from the US. So citizens started taking matters into their own hands. They organized food drives, and many immediately went to the devastated scenes to try to rescue people from the rubble. I went to a food drive at the Red Cross, where we made thousands of tuna sandwiches. Later I learned that some of the donated food was being sold to displaced victims by enterprising crooks.
The next day there was a powerful aftershock (7.5) in the afternoon. I was at the house of a friend. I called my house and the maid told me my mother and my sisters had gone to my aunt's house. As I drove home I saw many people on the street afraid to get back into their houses and buildings. That night, my sisters and I decided we weren't sleeping on no 10th floor. The three of us took refuge at the house of a friend of my sister, a one-story house at ground level, nothing but the ceiling to fall on top of our heads in case of disaster. We must have looked crazy, but this seemed positively reasonable under the circumstances. We left my mother to fend for herself.
For months after that, you could be sitting with people in a room and at the lightest swaying of a curtain or a lamp, people would freak out. I went around our apartment closing open windows so as to avoid the scary spectacle of a stray swaying lamp.
To this day, very occasionally I still have vivid and vertiginous dreams in which I am in that apartment or in a tall building and the building bends down and threatens to fall with me inside.
Courage to the people of Japan.