I arrived in Santiago, Chile, on February 23, to do a photo shoot. Four days later, in the early morning hours of Saturday, February 27, we finished up a shot in the bar of the hotel where we were staying—where we still are staying, as of this writing. We took the elevator up to the 19th floor and went to our rooms and beds, exhausted from a long day and late night of work.
It was about 3 a.m. I had been laying down for less then ten minutes, not yet asleep, when the building started to shake and I immediately jumped up, realizing it was an earthquake. The shaking quickly got a lot stronger—so quickly that by the time I had run to the door, naked, and into the hallway the whole building was swinging back and forth violently. It struck me that that I should put some clothes on so I ran back into the room, grabbed my pants, and ran back to the doorway. That was the first 30 seconds.
The shocks from the earthquake still got stronger and I heard the walls and ceiling cracking and bursting. Glancing out the window that overlooked Santiago I saw the city go black. I could see flashes from power lines exploding on the streets. I stayed under the doorway, holding on so I didn’t fall while the shocks persisted and the building made sounds that made me think it was going to collapse any second.
After about 90 seconds of this the trembling stopped. I was in shock. Something fell down the elevator shaft, creating loud metallic impact sounds. The lights had gone out for a few seconds but quickly the hotel’s generators picked up and the lights came back on. Freaked out, I ran into the room, put on the first tee shirt and sweatshirt I could find, grabbed my camera, searched for the room key but couldn’t find it, and ran out to the stairway.
The 19 floors I had to travel down seemed to never end. I got dizzy from running, or from aftershocks, I don’t know. Outside of the hotel people were gathering in robes and underwear, some with all of their baggage packed. It is summer in Chile right now and temperatures are mild even at night; not necessarily warm though. Sirens were howling and police as well as fire department vehicles were zooming by constantly. About a half hour after the main earthquake, traffic all of a sudden picked up a lot, with cars racing by.
My colleague and I talked to a lady in her late 70s from northern California whose husband had died shortly after she and he landed into Santiago the week before. He suffered a massive stroke from the stress of the flight. Her daughters had come to Santiago to bring her and her deceased husband’s body back to the States, and now they had to experience this disaster. Surprisingly, she was in a good mood and joking around. Other people were in complete shock, sitting on stairs with their heads down. Overall everybody was rather composed, no panic and no chaos. Hotel employees were handing out robes, blankets, towels, and water. We were wondering if we should move away from the tall hotel, one of the tallest buildings in Chile, in case it was going to collapse as a result of the earthquake, but the hotel staff seemed calm, and the danger of the hotel’s collapsing was soon ruled out.
One to two hours later we were allowed back inside. I had no room key, but was told somebody would be on my floor with a master key. All of the hotel’s systems were out of service. After another half hour of deciding whether or not it was a wise idea to go back up to the 19th floor, we decided to go ahead. Multiple aftershocks had occurred since the main earthquake but they seemed a lot less strong and we couldn’t stay on the streets forever. We climbed the stairs to our floor and found all rooms propped open. Back in the room I found cracks on the wall and the ceiling but no major damage.
It didn’t take very long before another, heavier aftershock shook the building. Very scared, I grabbed my camera and ran down the stairs again. People on the street and the lobby level seemed calm and I walked through the lobby taking photos of the cracks in the walls and ceilings and of the rubble on the floor. I spent another 45 minutes downstairs and then decided to climb back up to my room once again.
Coverage of the earthquake seemed very delayed on the BBC news channel, the only TV channel available to me with English coverage, so I spent most of Saturday trying to find out what had happened and what the overall situation was in Santiago. I’d been able to make a call to my wife in Santa Barbara when I went back to my room the second time, but now phone service was interrupted and the Internet was still down. Not until quite late in the day did I learn about the 8.8 Richter scale magnitude of the earthquake, and not until the following days did we learn about the extent of the destruction in the cities of Concepcion and Constitucion.
On Sunday, we took a cab into downtown Santiago and found little damage. Life seemed to be going along rather as usual.
On Monday, we hired a driver to take us to areas that had suffered from the earthquake and we found collapsed bridges and homes. We spent some time at the Santiago International airport, which had been shut down after a bridge connecting the terminal collapsed, as had an elevator shaft, and part of a roof, among other damage. The police let us walk right up to the main building and take photographs. The usual noise of an international airport was absent. It felt like a ghost town: Wind was the main creator of noise. We realized that our return flight to the U.S., scheduled for Wednesday, March 3, was likely to be canceled.
Our travels through Santiago for the past few days revealed the city to be mostly intact: Except for a few buildings, bridges, and the airport, damage visible from the street seems to be small considering the magnitude of the earthquake. The people of Santiago are out and about. There are long lines at banks and at gas stations, which slows down traffic a lot. As we learn about how badly the area south of Santiago was hit, more and more and are thankful for having food and electricity.
Today, Tuesday, March 2, we have learned that our flight has been postponed to March 9, which means we are stuck here for more than another week. As I write this article, aftershocks are still occurring. Ever since the earthquake, I have been feeling like I am on a boat, and I keep a bottle of water sitting on my desk so I can monitor whether the aftershocks I feel are real or imaginary.
Photographer Jonas Jungblut, born and raised in Germany, has resided since 2001 in Santa Barbara, where he lives with his wife and seven-month-old son. More images from his time in Santiago can be viewed on his blog at jonasjungblut.com/blog, and his portfolio is located at jonasjungblut.com.