domingo, 9 de febrero de 2014

The Cartago earthquake of May 4, 1910



The Cartago earthquake of May 4, 1910
 Amelia and Philip Calvert, from the book “A Year of Costa Rican Natural History”

We had only felt a few slight shocks at Juan Viñas and when I returned to Cartago everyone seemed to think the worst was over, since the rains had begun and there was a steady decrease in both numbers and intensity of the quakes. Many people whose houses had not been badly injured had returned to them, although the squares and plazas and poorer streets were still full of tents and temporary shelters which were occupied by the refugees from condemned houses. This apparent improvement continued until the fourth of May, when we felt three shocks, at noon, at one and at four o'clock in the afternoon; sufficiently strong to bring people running into the streets again. Philip returned from Juan Viñas late in the afternoon of May 4 and after a delayed dinner we went to our room about six thirty to read the letters which had accumulated during his absence. As we sat there, as close as possible to the single electric bulb, there came without the slightest preliminary roar or faint shock a most terrific earthquake. The lights went out instantly. Because we happened to face that way we rushed toward the door but it was impossible to stand. The motion was entirely up and down; not lateral, and we were thrown to the floor on hands and knees at once and could only crouch and cower between the foot of the beds and the partition. The air was instantly filled with plaster dust and mortar, while the crash of falling walls and buildings was deafening. The shock seemed to last ten minutes (though the real duration was sixteen seconds). As soon as it had diminished enough for us to stand we made for our window, over piles of debris and the furniture that had been pushed out of place and found it possible to open shutters and sashes and in another minute we were safely in the street, having escaped without a scratch.

How miraculous this escape was we did not realize until later, when we learned that the solid brick partition between our room and that adjoining had fallen entirely into our room across the very place where we had been sitting. The other partition was wooden and there was a board ceiling, so that we had, quite unconsciously, reached about the safest place possible. We were among the first out, but the rest followed very quickly. Everyone who had or could get to a street window of course came out that way, but a number could not. The Weldon family, forced to come through passages, were slightly bruised by falling bricks. In a rear room; opening by its door on the main patio and by its window on the kitchen patio, were a young man, his wife and two months old baby. This room, when examined by the engineers and builders after the earthquakes of April 13, was said to have the strongest walls in the town, walls which it was practically impossible for any earthquake to shake. But with the first of this shock, the whole corner of this room with its two foot walls fell in upon the beds.

The baby had been laid down to sleep upon the bed, but as it was fretful the mother picked it up again and just had it in her arms when the crash came and the walls crushed the bed where the child was lying a moment before. By the help of one of the servants who took the baby out through the window and then helped the parents out, they also escaped unhurt. Three other maids were imprisoned in the kitchen by the falling of the walls and it took an hour's work to liberate them. Unfortunately Mr. Weldon was hit across the back by a beam and was very sick all night. The boiler connections burst and flooded the kitchen fire, putting it out instantly, by great good fortune. The streets were full of terror-stricken people, but it was remarkable that on this night, with infinitely greater cause, there was much less hysteria and excitement than on April 13. Everyone seemed stunned and crushed, and even from the wounded there was little screaming. Of the full extent of the catastrophe we were of course ignorant until morning.

The streets were dark; there was no moon and too much cloud for the starlight to have any effect at all. We could see that all the shops opposite were demolished; we knew the whole interior of the hotel was absolutely wrecked, we could make out that a shop on the lower corner of our square, "El Irazú," was also in ruins, and as this was the best-built part of Cartago, with the thickest, strongest walls, we could imagine what the rest of the town must be like. 
The "Irazú" shop, property of Felipe Martin, before and after de earthquake.

It soon began to mist and rain and be very cold. As our closet was immediately by the window, Philip climbed into the room and brought our warmest wraps and blankets. Others did the same. Some knocked in the parlor windows and handed out couches and chairs. The big doors opening into a passage where firewood was stored were battered in, wood brought out and a fire built in the street. Owing to the lack of combustible material in these houses there was little danger of fire and although the police warned us to keep it low, which of course we would have done in any case, they made no further objection to it. On the contrary they came to it frequently during the night to warm themselves or to get brands to light their torches or cigars. We sat about this fire until daylight. The young mother with her baby in her arms sat in the middle of a high-backed sofa, so that her husband on one side and Amelia on the other helped to keep her and the child warm. That we were successful was proved by the little creature's sleeping almost continuously, waking only to be nursed and when a sharper shock than usual made us all jump and so woke him suddenly.

Calle Real, Cartago, loking west, before and after the earthquake.

The ground trembled constantly and every now and then came a sharper shock, though none compared with the first in intensity. The night continued cold and windy and alternated between starlight with low clouds and light rains but fortunately we had no hard rain. When we had opportunity to think about it, Philip and I were very unhappy at the probability that all our collections were ruined and our year's work lost, particularly when some of the younger men who went through our room with lights told us the whole partition was down. Although we had climbed over the debris of this wall in our escape we had, in the darkness, no idea of what we were climbing over. We feared it had crushed the "instrument trunk" where specimens and notes were stored, for this trunk had been standing against the brick partition. As the gray light of morning came we could see the desolation all about us and a heart-rending sight it was.

Literally the whole town was in ruins. There were few places where so much of the walls and roof remained intact as in Weldon's Hotel and the house opposite. Almost everywhere else the walls crumpled in and the roof crashed through, leaving of the house nothing but a heap of shapeless ruins, often with only the faintest hint that it ever had been a house at all. The churches were all in ruins. The façade of San Nicolas fell bodily into the church. The façades of San Francisco was much broken and the roof and side walls crumbled to pieces. The Soledad suffered least, but its towers fell. The most extraordinary ruin was that of the Carmen church, where the whole top of one tower was broken squarely off and thrown upside down on the railroad track, where it remained as one solid piece, its four "feet" up in the air. This tower cap was fully ten feet on a side and somewhat higher and as it was not possible to remove it from the tracks without blasting it to bits, and the authorities feared the effects of the blast on the ruins while so many bodies remained unrecovered, it was necessary to build a switch around it to permit the passing of trains. 

The church of San Francisco, Cartago, before and after the erathquake on May 5, 1910.

The beautiful new Peace Palace, not quite finished, which was to have been dedicated in a few weeks, was leveled to the ground. As soon as there was the faintest gleam of light parties of men with shovels and picks began to dig in every heap where there was reason to suppose people were still alive, though more often they found only corpses and all day long these were carried through the streets in heaps and cartloads. When the news reached San Jose on the night of the fourth, partly by messengers as the wires near Cartago were down, the President of the Republic, Don Cleto Gonzalez Viquez, started at once for Cartago with such doctors and supplies as could be gathered at short notice, traveling by rail as far as the train could run, there were fissures and cracks across the tracks, and walking the rest of the way. During the following day a number of soldiers arrived from San Jose, some with shovels, crowbars and pickaxes to dig out the wounded and dead, others with their guns and ball-cart-ridges to patrol the streets. In the two nights we were in the streets after the earthquake there was no disorder. The people were quiet, orderly, there was little thieving and no looting so far as we could see or hear and we heard no shooting.

Up: The overturned tower of El Carmen church; Down: The Wrecked Schoolhouse next to Weldon´s hotel.


With daylight we began to explore our room to determine the extent of the damage. The falling wall carried with it the tumbler shelf so that the larvae, the rearing of many months, were all killed, with one extraordinary exception. A bottle of new Cora larvae which Philip brought with him the evening before from Juan Viñas, the rarest thing we had was found on the floor, unbroken and with the larvae alive!. The preserved specimens were uninjured, likewise the notes and memoranda, negatives (which were fortunately all films) and drawings. We handed three trunks from our room out of the window in safety. Two others were in the iron-roofed patio where we slept (for greater safety) after the earthquakes in April. Our bed there was crushed to scrap iron by the mass of bricks and tiles from the wrecked public school next to the hotel, which carried the galvanized iron roof with it. The two trunks were so buried under bricks and stone that there was no getting at them without a crowbar and shovel, but later we found a man to dig them out. One was so crushed and broken that it could not be used again, and a pretty Indian dish from a grave on Irazú, which it contained, was broken to bits but otherwise its contents were uninjured, including our journal. We packed up in the street as well as we could, discarding many things and handing many clothes to passers-by who were obviously in need of them. There were many astonishing things in our room.

The Central American Court of Justice, Cartago, after May 4, 1910.

The bureau, which had stood against the wall, was simply pushed into the middle of the room and there was no trouble in opening the drawers. Little boxes of specimens on the table were uninjured and even one envelope pinned up to the tape holding the electric light back in place was safe. Philip's tin collecting case, which had been standing on the instrument trunk, was perched on top of the mass of bricks and rubbish, unscratched. The chickens in the rear patio were still alive and some were fetched out, killed, plucked and cooked over the street fire which was kept going all the time. One of the maids, a Jamaican, seemed absolutely indifferent to the risk of falling walls and made trip after trip to the kitchen and storeroom. She stayed with us all day and promised to come on succeeding days. Of course she obtained food for herself and her little son by so doing, but there were few servants who stayed for any consideration. She made us coffee, cooked and helped pack and was invaluable. During the late morning two men from the hotel, who had been away hunting, rode in with a deer, half of which was given to the Weldon party. Faithful Emily made it into a venison stew, in which many beside the hotel group participated.

After the packing, three iron bedsteads with their springs and mattresses were passed out through the windows and set up in the street. Upright boards were fastened to head and foot, and others across these, and the structures so formed were covered with pieces of galvanized iron from the wrecked roofs lying inside the hotel. More iron, quilts and other odds and ends made sides. Small baggage and our two trunks containing specimens were run under the beds to be kept dry, other trunks were piled along the sides and boards lay against them. This kept all our salvage safe from thieves, who had begun to appear.

It rained at intervals all day, but lightly, so that packing was little interfered with, and all day there were almost constant earthquake shocks and trembles of varying intensity. In the meantime, railroad communication with San Jose had been restored and we were delighted to have a visit from Professor Tristan, who had come to see how some of his relatives and we had fared. He was astounded when he saw the condition of our room. This visit gave us the opportunity to take leave in person of the one who did most and so much to make our year in Costa Rica successful. May we meet again under happier surroundings!

Late in the day, work had begun on the construction of the track around the fallen tower of Carmen church. The up-train from Limon arrived as far as this tower and some of the guests from Weldon's went aboard and stayed there all night, the train eventually making its way to San Jose when the siding was completed. As it grew dark we threw ourselves, wrapped in blankets, across the covered beds in the street and slept, though brokenly, through the night; there was hardly any rain. About 10:30 on the morning of May 6 the train for Limon arrived and, finally settled in the chair car, we took our fare-well view of Cartago, just a year to the day of the week since we came to make our headquarters at Weldon's.

How different the scene! As we moved eastward from the station we passed through a part of the town containing less substantial houses and, looking down some of the streets, one could not see a single house standing on either side for their whole length. Instead were heaps of adobe bricks, roof beams, bamboo frames, tiles and sometimes galvanized iron roofs mixed together indiscriminately, while streets and patios had makeshift shelters of most varied construction around which stood groups of survivors watching the passing train. It was a most sorrowful and distressing sight, especially to those who like us had lived here for months and come to have affection for the town and its beautiful surroundings. The village of Paraiso was not near enough to the tracks to enable us to see how extensive the damage was there. But the great single tower of the church, which had been a landmark visible for miles around, was gone and we could see that the east end of the church had also collapsed. East of Paraiso we saw little evidence of the work of the earthquake, as the houses near the track were of wood and wooden buildings, including the few in Cartago of that material, suffered very little or not at all. The early reports of the number killed, as given for example in the National Geographic Magazine for June, 1910, stated that over six hundred bodies had been taken from the ruins of Cartago and a hundred and twenty more from Paraiso. Fortunately this seems to have been an exaggeration. The official report in La Gaceta for October accepted by Don Cleto Gonzalez Víquez, gives the total number of killed in the two places as two hundred and seventy-two. To a country of the size and population of Costa Rica, the total destruction of a prosperous and flourishing city, the second in importance in the republic, might have been considered an overwhelming misfortune. But the spirit of the Costa Ricans was undaunted. "Let us reconstruct Cartago!" was at once the cry, and reconstruction did begin immediately. For ourselves, in spite of its sorrowful conclusion, our Costa Rican year was the best we have lived and our most cherished dream is of returning to the Enchanted Land.

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