The devastation caused by the recent 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile may seem remote to students clustered on a small campus in Maine, but for three Bowdoin students studying abroad in Chile, the disaster is anything but distant.
Juniors Will Cogswell, Arielle Gilmore and Samantha Collins were each living in Chile as part of their off-campus study programs when the earthquake struck early morning last Saturday.
Although establishing contact was initially difficult in the first few days following the earthquake, Director of Off-Campus Study Stephen Hall confirmed on Wednesday that each student has been accounted for.
Gilmore and Cogswell are both participating in School for International Training (SIT) programs, while Collins is studying in Chile through a program offered through Middlebury College.
"Middlebury and SIT have been very good about sending us updates, and they e-mailed us early on after the earthquake to confirm that all their students were accounted for and safe," said Hall.
Hall praised the study abroad programs for their excellent preparation and quick response to the crisis situation in Chile, likening the recent earthquake to other international emergencies that have arisen in the last few years.
"After the bombings in Madrid and London, or during the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, for example, the programs there similarly let us know that their students were safe, and sent us updates as necessary on precautionary measures they were taking," he said. "Study abroad programs are very aware of the need to have well-defined safety procedures and emergency protocols."
Although communication has been difficult across much of the country, Cogswell has been blogging about his experiences in the capital city of Santiago since last Saturday morning.
Cogswell's blog, www.gringogigante.blogspot.com, features a three-part update on "el terremoto," including pictures of visible damage to a nearby church. He also describes his experiences throughout the 90 seconds of shaking in vivid detail.
"[E]verything began to move—not just shake and rattle, but move up and down, side to side—it was like something that you would find in an amusement park, except I wasn't strapped into a safety harness," he wrote.
"I found out later from my host mom and from one of her other sons how violent this part of the quake actually was," he continued. "She said that, out of her window, she and her husband could see the buildings across the street bending, swaying and moving up and down."
In an e-mail to the Orient Arielle Gilmore described her own experience of being awoken by the earthquake while sleeping in her room at the Cerro Castillo Hotel, "It was terrifying when the earthquake first started," she wrote. "No one wants to wake up to their bed violently shaking and yelling in the halls. The worst part was the electricity going out and hearing sirens across the city. We had to the leave the hotel and no one could get in contact with anyone."
"The overall experience was just nerve-wracking," she added. "Not knowing what was going to happen, trying to communicate your fear to other people in another language, and especially the pretty significant tremors that we still feel every day."
Although frightened by the experience of the earthquake, Gilmore wrote that conditions in her local communities were surprisingly sound.
"Viña del Mar has no structural damage. The same is true of Valpara¡so," she wrote. "The biggest problem was the lack of electricity and water the following couple days."
Despite the earthquake, Gilmore made it clear that her study plans have not changed.
"I'm going to keep studying as intended," she said. "There are components built into the program that will allow us to further assist in relief efforts throughout the community."
Gilmore also encouraged the Bowdoin community to get involved.
"The best solution is to donate through organizations like the Salvation Army or the Red Cross," she wrote.
"More than anything," Gilmore wrote, "the earthquake has taken an emotional toll on the families here and throughout the country because they have family and friends who have died, disappeared or been severely affected in Concepción and places near it."
Indeed, the city of Concepción and surrounding areas are considered to be the hardest-hit by the earthquake. Although Samantha Collins was in Santiago at the time of the earthquake, she was preparing to move into her host family's home in Concepción over the next few days following it.
"Luckily enough, when the earthquake occurred, everyone in my program was in the same place for orientation," she said. "They didn't allow us to leave the hotel for two days, which was understandable."
Collins was perhaps the luckiest of the three students in terms of communication; the hotel where she was staying began using generator power on the morning of the earthquake, enabling her to maintain contact with the outside world.
"Pretty much everyone I have ever met in my entire life has contacted either my family or me directly," she wrote in an e-mail to the Orient. "I have been inundated with e-mails, phone calls, Skype [calls]...Even my dentist called my mother to make sure that I am alive."
The widespread devastation near the epicenter of the earthquake in Concepción has forced Collins to change her plans and relocate to the Universidad de La Serena, a town along the northern coast of Chile.
"However, I do intend to visit Concepción later in the semester to meet the host family that I was going to be living with and see the city," she added. "That being said, we still haven't been able to communicate with my host family."
Not unlike Cogswell's comparison to being flung about on an amusement park ride without a harness, Collins described the morning of February 27 as similar to being helplessly lost at sea.
"The best way to describe the feeling of being in an earthquake is like being on a boat that is hitting huge waves," Collins wrote. "Except it's the ground that is undulating, not water."
"Even though it only lasted for one and a half minutes, it seemed like an eternity," she added.