Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 4, 1973
Atlantans Recall Terror As The Earthquake Struck
By Marie Mulvenna
We thank God that He got us out alive
Frank Sullivan says those words as a man who has just looked death in the eye and lived to tell about it. He, his wife Mercedes and their three children miraculously survived the disastrous earthquake that devastated Managua, Nicaragua on December 23. They are now safely home in Atlanta after a terrifying experience that sounds like fiction but was tragically real.
The Sullivans, who live at 480 Hildebrand Avenue, are members of St. Judes parish. They had flown to Managua on December 17, the first trip home for Christmas in 14 years for Mercedes Sullivan and one the family had saved for and looked forward to for many months. Mercedes is a native of Nicaragua and their last visit to her country had been some five years ago during summer months. This trip was something very special and it almost cost them their lives.
Frank described their brush with death for the Bulletin. We were guests at a party given by Mercedes sister at her home about eight kilometers outside of Managua. It was December 23. The first tremor came about 10:30 p.m. and I didnt even notice it but the others did. It was mild so nobody seemed concerned. All of us were sitting outside on the patio around midnight when the big tremor hit. The quake knocked us all to the ground and everything was complete shock and devastation. My wife screamed for our son, who is nine, and had come with us to the party. Our two girls, ages eight and three, were with their grandparents in Managua. The boy was in one of the bedrooms in my sister-in-laws home. I somehow crawled into the house, which was pretty badly hit. All the electricity had gone but the boy had made his way out of the bedroom into the hallway and was hanging onto the top of a door. I grabbed him and got him outside.
We ran for our car, which was OK, and began the trip into Managua, to find our daughters and their grandparents. We went up and down streets filled with rubble and debris. Many of them were blocked with fallen walls and parts of houses. Some areas of the city were completely inaccessible. We were really frantic and then I noticed a familiar sign, I jumped out of the car and ran down a nearby street to find my wifes parents standing bewildered in the street in their nightclothes. Their home was nothing but a shell. They told us Mercedes brother, who had an adjoining house, had taken the children to another sisters house nearby. Buildings were collapsing all around. A few other men and I tried to help several women trapped in a badly hit building. Another tremor hit and the building collapsed completely. We all ran toward the car when another tremor came and knocked us all to the ground. The side of the car was smashed in with huge rocks. Somehow we managed to dig the car out, pry off the rocks and debris and thank heavens the motor started.
We did get to Mercedes sisters home and found our two daughters alive and well. The house had been severely hit and parts had already caved in. They had one of those huge retaining walls that just folded in during the quake. The street had huge caverns in it and the walls were falling all around us.
Mercedes brothers wife was in the hospital with their 40-hour-old infant when the quake hit. Somehow Mercedes brother got to the hospital, crawled in and got both of them out before the hospital itself collapsed. All of us spent the night in the street at her sisters house, afraid to sleep but happy we were all alive and together. The tremors continued all through the night.
The next morning Mercedes brother and I went back into Managua to their parents home. It was daylight and I crawled over some fallen walls and piles of rubble and managed to get a few personal belongings of theirs and ours out of the house. We loaded them into the car and all of us headed for Masaya which is about 20 kilometers outside of Managua. We then spent two nights at the home of Mercedes' aunt. Their place was badly damaged and we all spent the nights on the floor, existing on any food at all we could find around.
Our next decision was whether we should attempt to try to get to Costa Rica to the U.S. Embassy the embassy in Nicaragua had been totally annihilated or to go to the Managua airport. I kind of leaned toward trying to reach Costa Rica but my brother-in-law felt we should try for the airport since the U.S. was already flying in emergency supplies and aid. We piled into the car and headed for the airport. We had to use back roads and seldom traveled routes because we had to avoid the flaming destruction of the center of Managua. You couldnt go near it. Everything was burning. We saw churches burning like torches; everything was complete devastation on the way to the airport. We saw some poor sisters in white habits walking the roads with other people, seeking shelter and some sort of accommodations at small farms along the way. It was unbelievable.
Mercedes parents did not return with us. They are relatively safe in Masaya, which has become sort of a refugee haven. They have a sister and other relatives there. They are OK although Mr. Carrion, Mercedes father, was pretty badly bruised in the quake. Im going to try to get them out of there and up here with us soon as I can.
When we finally arrived at the Managua airport, it was real confusion. We put our names on an Air Force manifest list. The U.S. had large cargo planes coming in and said they would try to fly out as many people as they could. We were really lucky we got on a Florida-bound flight that we thought would stop in Tampa. However, they said theyd make one stop first at Homestead Air Force Base which is about 20 miles from Miami. When we arrived at Homestead the Red Cross met us, gave us some food and got us through customs. They then bussed us to Miami where I called a friend to bring us our car which I had left near there before we flew down to Managua on the 17th. From there it was home to Atlanta.
Frank Sullivan is 36, a native of Atlanta and was brought up in Christ the King parish. He is still in a state of shock but related some additional thoughts on their recent terrifying experience.
What does the quake feel like? Frank says it is somewhat like a tremble felt in an office when a large cart is rolled across the floor or a nearby train rumbles past. Magnify that many times over and its a rough idea of what it feels like. You lose your equilibrium completely not so much the noise itself that scares you but the horrible feeling of being knocked off your feet and everything flying all around you. Buildings collapse just like sandcastles. They ground just opens completely separates in spots, some higher than others. The vibrations are so strong they just shatter buildings. I saw one concrete building, reinforced with steel that just crumbled the whole thing. One hotel, the one where Howard Hughes is supposed to stay, had the top two floors just fall off. The rest of the building was still standing at that point.
The entire city of Managua was in flames. I dont really know what causes the fires perhaps falling electrical wires. Or maybe because most of the people have gas stoves and they overturn when the tremors hit, starting fires. The whole city was filled with smoke.
The normal question now is What can we do to help? Frank pauses for a moment and replies quietly, Keep sending help to the various relief groups. I was so very proud of the way our country helped and how quickly they came in with supplies and assistance. Standing at that airport in Managua, I watched plane after plane come in with disaster aid. The biggest problem is the confusion of getting the aid distributed. I guess the government must have been shattered and the channels for reaching the people who need help are not clearly set up. Its awfully chaotic and relief efforts are somewhat uncoordinated.
Since their return to Atlanta, the Sullivans have heard that some other relatives are safe and in refugee camps. The news was relayed to them by a radio operator in Philadelphia. Frank says the three children were not injured at all, but are terribly upset by their experience. He said they cannot yet sleep and when they do fall asleep they wake up screaming in fear.
All I can say is, thank God all of us are alive and well. Thank God.