A six-part story of the trials and tribulations of a family during a major disaster event.
MOMENTS OF MISFORTUNE – Part 1
By Chuck Wallace
Edited by Lisa Ballou
I knew it! Here he comes. Just like clockwork. He must have been waiting for me in the parking lot! My co-worker Matt dashes toward me in the pouring rain.
Trotting up, he loudly asks, “Hey, did you feel the earthquake last night?”
I heard him ask me something, but I was still leaning into my car to retrieve my briefcase, umbrella and cup of coffee when he asked.
I responded, “Sorry, Matt. I didn’t hear what you said.”
He breathlessly repeats, “Did you feel the earthquake last night?”
I reply, “I didn’t. I just heard about it while driving into work this morning.”
Excitedly, Matt exclaimed, “It was a 4.2 magnitude earthquake just offshore of the State Park, south of the Indian Nation. Lots of people felt it in the county!”
I answered, “Yeah, well, I didn’t feel anything or even know until the radio news broadcast the information.”
Matt further explained, “The radio said, there was no damage, but it was felt as far away as British Columbia and Oregon!”
I replied, “You do know we live in earthquake country. We just don’t have that many and the ones we do have, are fairly small. Hardly anyone feels them.”
Matt pressed on, “Sooner or later we’ll have a really big one. That’s what scares me the most.”
Walking away, toward my office, I answer over my shoulder, “Yeah, well hopefully, we’re all long gone when it does happen.”
~ ~ ~ ~
I rub my forehead while sitting at my desk, exhausted and semi-perturbed after answering the same questions about the earthquake all morning. The theme of the day continued during my morning phone call to my wife.
I continued, “I heard about it. Ever since I walked into the office, everyone has been talking about it. You’d think the world was ready to tilt off its axis.
“I know, but nothing even really happened, I mean, apart from a few people feeling the ground shake. It’s just one of those things.”
I tell her, “We’ve lived here for 10 years and nothing has happened even remotely impacting us. This is the first earthquake we’ve had close to us and we didn’t even feel it.”
Half listening to her questions and concerns about the earthquake, I patronizingly offer,” Hmm, yeah, right. Look, don’t worry about it. It’s over. Hey, I have to go, I have a conference call starting in a few minutes, ok? Yep, yeah, everything’s alright. Ok. See ya tonight. Good. I love you too.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Sitting at my desk, shuffling through the stacks of files to find the particular one I need, I think to myself, boy, am I glad I didn’t go to the meeting in Seattle today, I have too much to do. Thankfully, I don’t have to pay too much attention to this conference call. I can chime in from time to time, while responding to some of these never ending e-mails.
After half an hour of listening to the same exact issue we discussed last month, I unmute my phone and break into the meeting, “Yeah, I agree with what was just said, we need to begin working on the next objective of our strategic plan.”
Someone else comments, “I’d like to revisit the notes I have from the meeting two months ago.”
Not believing what I just heard, I make a strong recommendation to the conference members on the phone, “If we don’t begin moving forward….” –What the…?
My entire office lurches forward, shoving me against the edge of my desk. The shelves hanging along my wall all tear away with books and files bouncing and falling in complete disarray on the floor. My computer screen goes blank as the office lights flicker.
I jump up, “ahhh,” shouting out as my steaming hot cup of coffee goes flying cross my desk, spilling everywhere and over everything, including me, soaking my shirt and trousers, onto my stomach and into my lap.
A few ceiling tiles begin to fall on the other side of my office as I hang onto the desk, half standing, attempting to wipe the coffee and cool the blistering heat in my lap. Suddenly, the light fixture over my desk swings down and slams into the side of my head. I feel like I’ve been hit with a baseball bat. I grab the right side of my head and fall to my knees, knocked senseless from the blow.
The entire event ends after a few harrowing moments. My right ear has a constant ringing. I can hear others in the building yelling, but am unable to make sense of what they are saying. I look around my office, my right hand holding the side of my head, and see everything in disarray. Walking down the hallway, passing the other offices in my building, I see a mess of papers, books, pamphlets, tumbled file cabinets and fallen ceiling tiles.
The department head from down the hall asks all in the corridor, “Is everyone here? Are we all ok?”
One of the women from the office down the hall asks, “Aren’t we supposed to evacuate and get to high ground?”
A male voice responds, “Are we in an inundation area? I think we’re on high ground.”
Another person in the office calls out, “Where is the Weather Radio? Information should be broadcast on that.”
The woman answers, “I don’t think we have one. I’ve been here for 6 years and I’ve never seen one.”
A male voice from the middle of the crowd asks, “Well, what are we supposed to do?”
Half of the nine or so people in the second-floor hallway are texting or trying to call someone.
A man from an office on the other end of the building shouts for all to hear, “The cell lines are busy.”
Another says, “I think I can text!”
The department head states in a loud authoritarian voice, “Let’s get outside. We’re supposed to go outside after an earthquake, then have the building checked to be sure it’s safe.”
Another woman in the building speaks up and exclaims, “I’m not leaving the building. If a tsunami is coming, I am not going to be on the street.”
Their babbling and indecisiveness is driving me crazy as my head continues to pound from getting hit with the light fixture.
I shout, “Yo! Hey! Listen Up! We are not in a tsunami inundation area. Let’s just go outside like the boss said, and make sure everyone in the building is safe. We can figure out what to do once we’re outside.”
Matt approaches from the other end of the hallway wearing a rain poncho and backpack. He slowly high steps through the debris, shuffling it with each step, as he walks around the overturned file cabinets and maneuvers himself along the wall.
He asks, “Is everyone all right?”
I reply, “We’re going to get out of here and see if everyone from the building is ok.”
A voice from the back shouts, “It’s pouring rain out there. Can’t we just stay here?”
Matt responds, “Actually, newer buildings are built so they don’t collapse during an earthquake onto the people inside, but I think this is a fairly old building. Either way, they are only designed to prevent collapse from one earthquake. I’m not sure what would happen if we have an aftershock.”
The office manager asks, “Where did you get that information?”
Matt replies, “I’ve read about it and have gone to a few conferences where they talk about building safety in earthquakes, non-reinforced masonry buildings, non-structural damage…”
Another worker cuts him off, “Yeah, well, I’d rather be wet than trapped in here if we have an aftershock.”
Hesitantly, the group agrees to leave, and we begin exiting the building through the stairway at the end of the hall. My head is pounding as I follow the group and try to call my wife, worried about her and my kids. Attempting the call, all I hear is a busy signal.
I whisper out loud, “Unbelievable,” as I try twice more with the same busy signal. I think to myself, “I guess that’s why they’re called family plans, when one phone won’t work, none of the others will either.”
Walking out of the building into a gusty, steady downpour, toward the assembly area, I see other employees from the building congregating in their pre-designated assembly areas in the parking lot, the same ones we use for a fire drill. Everyone looks drenched from head to toe. Glancing to my left, I look at Matt in his rain poncho and backpack and begin to chuckle. What is this guy doing?
I teasingly offer, “Did you pack for the weekend?
He says, “It’s my Go Kit. Don’t you have one?”
I look at him like he’s crazy, “What are you talking about?”
He replies, “A Go Kit. Everyone should have one. In case of earthquake, flooding…”
I interrupt, not wanting to know any more, “Yeah, well I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
He responds, very concerned, “It’s a necessity for everyone living around here. I have food, water, a radio, clothes and a first…”
I speak over him, “Yeah, sounds great. But I’m not carrying all that stuff with me all day.” Changing the subject, I ask, “Where is our assembly area anyway?”
Matt replies, “Follow me. I know where we are supposed to go.”
Rain water is running down my back as we move across the parking lot to join the others. I slowly begin to survey the area immediately surrounding us through the sheets of rain and gusty wind. The chimney has collapsed on the home across the street and one of the parked cars in front of our building has a large tree branch laying across the hood. This earthquake was worse than I thought. People are congregating on street corners and in other parking areas. It’s almost surreal looking at the panicked expressions on the faces of everyone as they gather. Their voices are muffled by the continuous honking, wailing and whooping of the multiple car and home alarms activated during the ground shaking of the earthquake. Looking up, I see Harry, a first-floor employee, limping toward us.
Someone yells out, “Oh my God, Harry has blood all over him!”
A small crowd gathers around him as he tells them he is fine. He explains how a cabinet in his office fell over and hit him on the corner of his eye, causing all of the blood.
Harry says, “It’s just a cut. I’m all right.”
Someone shouts out “I have a message! Texting works!”
Others begin confirming “Me, too!”
“Yeah, mine works.”
I notice almost everyone around me texting on their phone. I pull mine from my pocket and begin to text my wife and kids,
Are u all ok?
Within seconds, my wife replies via text, I’m ok. It was scary. House shook like crazy. Lights r flickering. Nothing from the girls – YES, your dog is fine!
She continued, Radio said EQ centered off coast. Some cities – Aberdeen have damage. That’s where the school is & where Janie works!
Adding, No message from Katie’s school. Hopefully, they r ok. I’m worried.
I reply, trying to remain calm in the moment, but very worried about my kids. We have a few minor issues. I don’t think it was anything major. The girls will be fine. They know what to do.
Impatient, frightened and very concerned, she texts, Well, for knowing what to do, nobody’s doing anything!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Matt, has been attending to the cut above Harry’s eye with the first aid kit he stored in his Go Kit, walks over and hands me an extra rain poncho he is carrying.
“This will keep you dry.”
I thank him but give the poncho back, “It’s a bit late for that. I’m soaked!”
Matt nods and stores the poncho in his backpack.
With a concerned look on his face, he offers, “The USGS said it was a magnitude 6.3 earthquake about 6 miles off the Grays Harbor coast along the Cascadia Fault Line. I looked at some social media sites, and they say there is moderate damage to some homes and buildings along the coast.”
I ask, “Do they say anything about people hurt?”
“Not really,” he adds, as he scans the various social media sites.
Wiping the droplets of rain from my phone screen, I try to call my daughters, but the lines are still busy. I heard one person talking to someone on the phone, but I guess with the earthquake being local, everyone is trying to make a call.
The building manager comes out and asks all to gather around.
The drenched group huddles around as he starts, “We don’t have anyone qualified to inspect the building for damages. There are a few cracks along the first-floor storage areas and at this point, I don’t believe it is safe to re-enter the building without someone with some engineering knowledge looking at the damage. My suggestion is for everyone to go home, check on your family and then for tomorrow, confirm whether the building will be safe to re-enter with your supervisor.”
A voice comes from the middle of the pack, “Are we getting paid for this?”
The manager just looks at the person and shakes his head, apparently dumbfounded by the question.
The voice asks in a very irritated manner, “Are we still getting paid?”
The manager replies, much more composed than I would had been, “I don’t know. Let’s get out of the rain and attend to our families first. We can worry about money when the dust settles.”
As the crowd begins to disperse, I start walking to my car and realize my keys are on my desk in my office.
Exasperated, I blurt out, “It figures.”
Matt who is walking beside me asks, “What figures?”
I say, “My keys are on my desk.”
Matt offers to take me home, but I’m hesitant to accept his offer. And then, realizing I’m cold, wet and there may not be any other solution I tell him, I’ll take him up on his offer. Suddenly, half startling me, my phone rings. It’s my wife.
“What’s up kid?”
My wife begins talking a mile-a-minute, half sobbing. I can’t make out what she’s saying.
I say, “Slow down, I can’t understand what you are saying.”
She says, “Jack! Jack! Oh my God, Oh my God.”
I realize something is terribly wrong and try desperately to focus on her words.
“Shar, you have to slow down. I can’t understand.”
She composes herself and says, “The school called. Part of the roof collapsed onto some classrooms. They think Katie is trapped under the roof!”
END OF PART 1