It’s 27th February 2008. The time 0056 hours. From a deep and tranquil sleep in peaceful Lincoln, I’m jolted into awareness by sudden ferocious thunder. This thunder, however, comes not from the clouds but from deep underground, a rumbling, rolling subterranean growl, felt more than heard as my house shakes violently around me. For ten, long seconds I hear the tiles above my head clatter and, half expecting chimney pots, I warily eye the ceiling as the overhead light swings in the streetlamps’ orange glow.
But this is England. After years of repressed tectonic distortion, it’s Mother England who’s abandoning her maidenly restraint to bellow and buck in a quaking orgasm of relief. Why should the Spanish word for earthquake spring into my mind? I’m transported back thirty-eight years.
It’s 1970 and I’m a sergeant avionics technician serving on 543 Squadron, Royal Air Force, operating Victor SR2s out of Jorge Chavez International Airport, Lima, Peru. We’re spying on – sorry, monitoring – the French atmospheric nuclear weapons tests on Mururoa Atoll way out in the Pacific and sending the fusion debris collected back to AWRE Aldermaston for analysis. The operation is deemed ‘Secret’ (though how operating two camouflaged, one hundred and ten foot wingspan aircraft out of an international airport – aircraft which stream sixty-foot braking parachutes each time they land – can be kept secret is beyond any of us). If questioned, we are told to say we are working for the World Health Organisation. Nobody believes us, least of all the French whose ambassador greeted us on arrival with a bottle of champagne.
It’s the squadron’s second detachment to Peru, the first, two years earlier, memorable if only for the international incident caused when after ten long hours airborne, one of our Victors, short on fuel and highly radioactive, was forced to land in Chile after chasing a cloud of debris too far south. ‘BRITISH SPY-PLANE FORCED DOWN BY OUR FIGHTERS’ screamed the Santiago press. After two face-saving days it was allowed to return to Lima.
But it’s a quiet Sunday afternoon and we non-comms are spending a few relaxed hours in the foyer-cum-lounge of the ‘Hotel Riviera’ enjoying a cervesa or two and what few English language newspapers we can find. The officers are at the ‘Crillon’ half a mile distant. The date is May the thirty-first and, although Lima is but twelve degrees below the Equator, it is blanketed by cloud throughout its winter months. I suddenly feel cold; I need a jacket.
‘Ocho, pour favor’. Although the two young lift attendants exchange grins as its doors slide shut, I’m proud of my Spanish pronunciation and, eight floors up, with the key to my room in hand, I give them some more. ‘Una momente, OK?’ then dash along the corridor to return seconds later pulling on a jacket. The doors again slide shut.
The ‘Hotel Riviera’, or most of it, has thirteen storeys, its zenith five floors higher than the one at which the lift, like a giant pendulum, now hangs suspended. Suddenly, everything goes berserk. Yo-yo like, we’re bounced, battered and ground against the shaft walls, the din reverberating throughout the whole of its thirteen storeys. Debris cascades on to the fragile roof just feet above my head and as the word ‘earthquake’ has not yet entered my mind, when a much heavier object slams down on top of us, I imagine it’s the cable and that we’re plummeting earthwards. Seeing the lift boys down on their knees, their right hands a blur as they make the sign of the Cross, convinces me my time is up! But is it? Though I’m no Catholic, my knees are bending too – but for a different reason. Hope really does spring eternal! Do I honestly believe bent knees can cushion an eighty foot drop on to concrete? Then I look at the control panel; the floor numbers are counting down at their usual slow pace; we’re not plunging earthwards after all. My finger hits button number five as it lights up and moments later, we’re out of our animated steel box. But suspended on cables now extending eight storeys, its vigorous bouncing persists. Only now do I realise what’s happening.
The young lift-boys do too. ‘Terremoto!’ Wide-eyed, they mouth the word in unison. Silently. Just the one word.
In an earthquake zone all edifices more than six storeys high have to be built on concrete rafts. The thirteen-storey part of the Hotel Riviera complies with this regulation. Its six-storey extension, however, does not. Two buildings with a shared wall; one of them rocking to the rhythm of the earthquake, the other rigid and unyielding. And here, on the fifth floor, with daylight winking at me through a crack in the wall opposite, their junction is only too obvious. To my lay-man’s eye it would seem the bigger one is about to knock the smaller one down! Shouting to be heard, I tender yet more of my dreadful Spanish and, pointing to where we’re standing, yell ‘Peligro’ then, ‘Esquina’ before ushering them into what I think will be the safest corner. I detect no exchange of grins this time.
Records will state that the Great Peruvian Earthquake of 1970 lasts forty-five seconds. I do not believe that. It lasts an hour, at least. Or that’s how long it seems as I stand squeezed into a corner with two teenage lift attendants.
Without having lived through the experience, the power of an earthquake is truly beyond man’s imagination. I watch piles of plaster dust grow on the carpet as the crack in the wall lengthens vertically, I hear glass breaking and women screaming. And I wait for the inevitable collapse. Surely this building will fall! This was not meant to happen! This was not how my life was supposed to end! Surprisingly, I accept it. Although convinced I am about to die, the emotion I feel is disappointment more than fear. I think of my children nine thousand miles away; they’ll never see me again.
Forty-five seconds? No, I don’t believe it.
But as suddenly as it started it’s over. Instantly. No fade-out. It’s as though a switch has been thrown. All that mighty power turned off at the mains. The floor under my feet stops shaking and it’s so quiet I feel I’ve gone deaf. The relief is instant too. How long have I been holding my breath?
We’ve survived and, seeing the smiles on the faces of my two companions, I need to demonstrate my feelings. I sense they do too. We’ve shared a very special moment in our lives, one we will remember always. So what to do? They are very young, very junior members of staff; I am a patron of the hotel they serve. It’s up to me. But a mere handshake won’t do. In a very un-British display of emotion I extend my arms for a hug. Laughing, they respond enthusiastically.
The bar is five floors down and I need a drink. Do we use the lift? Is it still serviceable? We take a chance and, although our ride is attended by a discomforting clatter from mechanisms overhead, we make it to the ground floor safely.
With the hotel staff having deserted en masse, there’s no one at the reception desk and the lift-boys, no doubt following Standing Orders, join them outside. But there’s a party underway in the bar! With no barman on duty, my RAF comrades are helping themselves. I’m greeted by a huge cheer. But in discussing our respective experiences our voices are just that little bit too loud, our laughter more prolonged than it should be. There’s a hint of hysteria in the air.
And it’s not yet over. At a sudden after-shock, the standard lamps distributed around the lounge rock in unison, the one close to where I’m sitting almost toppling. Instant silence. Only one man moves: a young corporal rigger leaps to his feet and is half way to the door before the jeers of the rest of us stop him in his tracks. Sheepishly he returns to his seat.
Will it make the papers back home? What none of us realise yet is that our exciting, eight-point-one on the Richter scale earthquake experience has killed or will kill more than seventy-five thousand people, that three million others will be rendered homeless. We do not yet know that a natural dam high in the Cordilleras to the north of Lima has burst its banks after half a mountain slid into it, that the result is a drowned town, its adobe houses reverting back to mud. Twenty thousand of its inhabitants drowned in what were their own homes. Or do you suffocate in mud? The Peruvian government will allow no excavation at the site and the dead of the town of Yungay lie undisturbed still, a memorial to that tragic day.
So of course it makes the news back home, and in a few hours time, once every squadron member has been accounted for, police Landrovers will be broadcasting our survival throughout RAF Station Wyton’s married-quarters.
Over the next few days and despite television assurances to the contrary, Peruvians agitating against nuclear weapons-testing convince themselves that we are responsible for the earthquake – they think we’re French because of the ‘tricolor’ painted on our Victor tail fins (all RAF aircraft have them in 1970) and a protest march to the airport is planned. Only after Union Jacks are procured from the Embassy and prominently displayed can they be persuaded otherwise.
Despite world-wide protest, the French would continue testing their nuclear weapons on Muroroa so we were back in Lima the following year and again in 1974. With earth tremors common along the whole length of that western seaboard, I was to experience many more of them. On every occasion, just as in England on February 27th 2008, it was the word ‘terremoto’ rather than ‘earthquake’ that sprang to mind.