OK. Sorry for the delayed response but it has been a pretty intense few days. Thanks for all of your calls and e-mails of support. We appreciate it. Things are just now slowing down enough to write. Thanks for your patience and understanding.
First off, I want to say that although we have experienced some difficulties and stress, it has been nothing compared to the suffering and hardship that the Chilean people are having to endure right now. As I am sure that you all know, the devastation and loss of life is enormous. And our hearts go out to them at this time of difficulty. It is so sad....
So on to the blog. Several of you have asked about our experience so I am going to describe what happened to us, although this is just one of the thousands and thousands of stories, most far more harrowing than ours.
We had driven south all day from Santiago. There were three of us, Kathy Gunther, myself and Steve Gibby, a producer friend from California who was along as an advisor on our RED camera. We had arrived at the Putu dunes a couple of days prior to Saturday and were staying at the beach restautant/hotel of our friend, Paul Paredes and his girlfriend, Jacquelina. We had just started trapping the day before and had seen one peregrine flying over the extensive dunes. On Thursday afternoon, Kathy and I had to drive into the town of Constitucion to finish up on some errands for our colleague, Christian Gonzalez. Little did we know then that this would be one of the locations hit hardest by the tsunami less than 48 hours later. In fact. we have been told that there were more fatalities in Constitucion than at any other single place on the coast. And we were camped about 7 miles north of there, right on the beach. In fact, as luck would have it, we were in one of the two hardest hit locations in Chile.
So, on the morning of the quake, I was sleeping soundly in back of LulaBelle, the project pick-up truck right out back of Pauls cement and log structure. Kathy was asleep in one of the small rooms and Steve was in the other. Both were on the lee side of the building and about 15 feet away from the truck.
Around 0332, the truck started rocking and I woke up, knowing it was an earthquake. I had expereinced these several times before on our previous expeditions and knew exactly what was going on. As I was laying there, assessing the quake to see if I should get up (not really wanting to leave my warm bag), the gentle rocking started to increase in intensity and rapidly got seriously strong. It was like 10 guys were on both sides of the truck rocking it as hard as they could. I sat up and tried to hang on to the side of the truck rail and braced against the roof as the quake went on and on.
About this time, I saw a little white blur outside the truck in the moonlight that turned out to be Kathy rocketing out of the building and bracing against the truck for footing. She eventually grabbed onto the side mirror bracket to keep herself upright. She later said it was like hanging onto a bucking bronco and only her years of expereince on her sailboat kept her on her feet.
What was most remarkable for me was the duration of the quake. It seemed to go on forever and in retrospect, we all indpendently figured it probably lasted about a minute and a half. This seemed like an eternity of course and was much, much longer than any of the 15 or so quakes I have been in before. The ferocity and violence of the shaking was unbeleivable. When it finally started to die down enough where I could crawl out of the truck, I pulled on my pants, grabbed my glasses (thankfully in the same place I left them) and jumped out of the truck to see if Steve was OK. I will be eternally grateful to see that he was. His bed hard been literally jumping up and down on the cement floor of the building and everything was in total disarray all about him but he came out barefoot.
We were really fortunate because the sky was clear and the moon was nearly full, so we had some limited illumination to assist us in reaching each other.
I had Steve grab the camera as I started unlocking the doors for everyone (who locked these anyway?). Paul jumped in his truck and started honking his horn to alert anyone else that might have been there to warn them. And in a gesture that I will never forget, he pulled back out of our way to make sure that we made it out first. We hit it hard and drove down a sand and dirt road heading for the main road about a mile away. We obviously wanted to get to high ground as quickly as possible.
At this time, we had no idea if there actually was a wave and if there was, just how much time we had to escape. I think we all had images of the Indonesia tsunamis in our minds. Paul later said that he had heard the wave coming just before he left. Yesterday, we learned that the wave took 7 to 10 minutes to hit Constitucion. We calculated that we must have taken about 5 minutes to get the trucks going, so in retrospect, it appears that it was a very close call. We have heard that the waves came in at a pretty good speed and overtook people rapidly.
During this entire escape, I was never frightened, just totally fixed on getting everyone out safely and concentrating on driving. However, when I learned just how close it had come on our heels, I had to sit down for a few minutes. Remarkably, that was when the fear hit me,several days later.
Along the road leading away from Paul's, there was a large dune about 18 feet high that was constantly marching across the road. It had always been a major maintenance problem for him. As we got there on our way out, the earthquake had brought down much more sand and we had a very narrow passage but Lula Belle got us through with no problem. If we had not made it through, the wave would have caught us there in the truck with extreme consequences.
Further down at the main road, there were several large wide cracks in the dirt road on either side of the lane which looked pretty bad but we flew over them too and made the main paved and relative safety. We raced up to the town of Putu (never drive fast on roads after an earthquake by the way) and headed up into the hills on a logging road, joining hundreds of people from the town heading for high ground. We stopped in a clearing several miles up where we could see the distant coastline and I swung my scope to look for tsunamis in the moonlight. I could just detect a series of smaller waves arriving at an inlet so we suspected there had been more.
We also heard about the first fatalities. In Putu, at least six people had died from buildings collapsing on them during the quake.
During the time in the hills, there was a nearly constant series of heavy and light aftershocks. The ground was moving and jumping for several hours after the quake and we all craved open ground.
Later, when the sun came up, we went back down to see what had happened during the night. Paul gave Steve a pair of flip-flops as he had lost his shoes and I gave him a t-shirt.
We drove back north along the highway and started to see the effects of the quake. At every road cut, debris had fallen into the road. At every bridge, there were separations between the pavement and structure, some as much as eighteen inches. You had to drive cautiously. We drove to a river mouth and saw that there had been a really big wave that had come through. Learned later there were several. As we rounded a bend in the road, we saw a scene of immense devastation. Whole trees were across the road, steel guard rails were bent like rubber, debris was strewn everywhere, and worst of all, we could see that a mile ahead our friend Juanitas new restaurant and house had been swept completely away and was about a half mile inland We learned later that she was OK. So we began to understand the enormity of the tsunami and started to realize just how bad it was going to be for the wonderful people along this entire coastline where we had been working for the last three years.
We saw evidence of enormous waves, in some places going over 20 feet above the normal sea level. We learned later that some went as high as 30 feet. As we looked out to sea, we saw yet another smaller wave sweeping up the river. This one was only about three feet high and we followed it along the road as it continued up the waterway, studying how it moved and understanding what had happened.
From there, we drove back to Pauls road and met him there. The entry road was now under about 3-4 feet of flowing salt water. So Kathy and I strapped on our packs and forded the stream noticing that there were hundreds of small fish dying from the sudden influx of salt water. We wanted to see what had happened to Pauls place as the dunes blocked it from view from the main road and it was not possible to drive in.
The first evidence of the destruction was a 25 foot fishing skiff laying upright in the road. We then found that the ground had been pretty well scoured by the waves. Further on was a six foot high mass of vegetation blocking the road. In amongst the green was an overturned car. We took to the dunes and arrived at Paul's place. Because of its solid cement construction, it was still standing but all of the windows were gone, all of the tables, chairs, kitchen stove, propane tank, doors and everything else had been swept away. Nearly everything in Steve´s room on the corner was gone, beds, mattresses, and almost all of our camera and computer equipment, clothes and personal gear. We could see from the water marks on the walls that the sea water had gone nearly to the ceilings of the rooms. Shingle damage on the roof showed it had gone about 20 feet up here too. Toilets and sinks had been ripped out of the bathrooms. A brick outbuilding had been torn apart by the water.
And our Honda ATV was nowhere to be seen. Almost miraculously, a Chilean horseman later found it upside down among the vegetation and fishnets and floats about a quarter mile inland. It had been swept into the dunes about 20 feet up, lying upside down by another fishing boat. I cut it out of the nets with a broken beer bottle and two kind Chileans helped me to roll it back upright.Kathy and I pushed it back to the truck across mostly level ground and we winched it across the salt water river to the truck.
As I write this in Santiago now, we are having it worked on to see if we can continue the study and still try to trap a bird or two. And, in fact, I need to go there now and see what they have found. Will try to write more later but lost both the MAC and net book to the tsunami. Oh well....
And finally and most imporatnatly, we send our deepest sympathy to the Chilean people in these trying times.