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THE ARMENIAN QUAKE: A DOCTOR’S STORY : A Witness to the Horror: ‘This Was Too Much to Bear’

This is his account of his recent trip to earthquake-devastated Armenia, as told to Times Staff Writer Steve Emmons.

I know when the horror of the Armenian earthquake became real to me.

It was Tuesday the 13th in the afternoon. Even though I had been in Armenia for two days and had seen the landscape of rubble and death, I still somehow hoped that it was a joke, that it was not real.

Then in what remained of the city of Spitak I braced myself and gazed upon the truth. I walked behind the huge stack of coffins on the far side of the soccer field, and there were the bodies, laid out like merchandise in a market. Lots of bodies.

I didn’t count them. I didn’t want to count; just seeing them was horror enough.

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They were young people mainly--well dressed, because they had been at work. They were in coats, suits, nice dresses, frozen in a state of shock. You could still see it in the expression on their faces.

Frozen Expressions

“Oh my God, what’s happening to us?” was frozen in those expressions, as if they were still alive. But they were blue from asphyxiation. For most it had not been a sudden death. It had been suffocation from being trapped under the rubble. They had suffered. It might have taken minutes, but maybe hours.

This was too much to bear. I couldn’t hold back. I burst out crying and walked away. Now I had witnessed it all. This must be behind us now, I thought. Now we must look forward.

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I was there in the Soviet Union as the first part of a U.S. State Department mission to assess the damage and offer aid. I am an American, and I was acting as an American. My American brain was calculating what medical facilities were needed here, what supplies were needed there. But my eyes and heart were Armenian. I will be obsessed by what I saw for the rest of my life.

If you grew up Armenian, I don’t have to explain. If you did not, I’ll try.

Armenia is divided among the Soviet Union, Turkey and Iran, but she has a 3,000-year history. She was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion, and her people have paid dearly for that choice, for the region is predominantly Muslim. Over the centuries, Armenians have been persecuted, massacred and driven from their homes.

Heritage of Armenia

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Nowadays children of Armenians may be French or English or American and may never have seen their ancestral homeland, but they grow up with a picture of Mt. Ararat on the wall and with the history and heritage of Armenia recited to them in the cradle, in school, in church.

They may become passionate nationalists, still hoping for a free and independent Armenia someday. They may become more moderate realists hoping merely for more autonomy within the Soviet system. But they care, perhaps more than they realize, about what happens to Mother Armenia.

I grew up like that. I wanted to visit Armenia, but not as a tourist who just goes and sees some buildings and some mountains and comes back. I had been very fortunate to reach the level of education and status and financial security that a lot of other Armenians had not. I felt it was my duty to contribute something. I wanted to share some of this prosperity.

So last year in April, I gathered about 800 pounds of medical equipment and supplies and went to Armenia in the Soviet Union to teach doctors modern techniques of urology. That’s when I fell in love with the country and the people. Visiting my homeland released the ethnic traits I’d repressed. I felt like a fish in the right pond.

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I worked 14 or 16 hours a day for two weeks. I operated on 60 patients, did maybe hundreds of consultations, donated some modern surgical equipment and taught the doctors how to use it.

I was physically exhausted but euphoric. I had touched the lives of some many hundreds of families, and the sense of satisfaction, of doing something good, was overwhelming. The warmth and gratitude of the people I met were astounding.

Last October, I returned to Armenia. I had been gone only 18 months, but the changes were amazing.

During my first trip, no one dared criticize anything openly--only privately among trusted friends. But last October, glasnost had taken hold. Average people in restaurants and on sidewalks felt free to complain openly about the government, and they were doing it.

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Spotting the Flag

But even seeing that didn’t prepare me for what a friend showed me one night in the city’s Opera Square. In the cold at night there were 200,000 people jamming this square, and floating above a statue in the middle of the square was the red, blue and orange flag that symbolizes an independent Armenia. This flag has been anathema to the Soviets. It was death even to mention it during Stalin’s time. It made you a traitor.

These 200,000 people are conducting an open forum. Every night, but especially Friday nights, as many as half a million people gathered there. A self-appointed committee of citizens had microphones on the steps of the opera house and all kinds of slogans on the walls.

And people would simply stand up there and speak their mind. Some people would talk about the importance of uniting Nagorno-Karabagh with Armenia. Some talked about pollution and the need to close a nearby nuclear power plant. If there was a proposal, the whole crowd would vote by raising their fists. A half-million people raising their fists! They were reveling in this new freedom. Russian tanks were a block away, but they were guarding government buildings and paying this assemblage no mind.

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I came home with much optimism. I spoke at Armenian churches and told the good news: Finally we’re on our way. The good days are coming. We’re going to see lots of improvement.

And then the earthquake hit.

The State Department contacted Armenian organizations; they needed Americans who knew Armenia and could act as liaison. One of the organizations contacted me. I knew I’d feel guilty the rest of my life if I didn’t go, so I made quick arrangements.

I flew to Washington, and Saturday, Dec. 10--3 days after the quake--I was on a chartered airliner heading for Armenia. There were 27 Americans on board, all volunteers. We hopscotched to Armenia, stopping several times to refuel and to allow the search dogs some relief.

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No One Realized How Bad

It was a very solemn flight. The people were bunched together in the large plane; the other seats were piled with equipment and supplies. Nobody was talking. I could see the faces, and they were anxious. We knew we would find a major disaster, but just how bad no one yet realized.

At 4 a.m. Sunday, we landed in Yerevan, Armenia. A lot of these Americans has never been in the Soviet Union, and there was excitement and tension in the air. They waited on board for the customs officials, but I went down the stairs and called to some Armenian mechanics nearby.

The mechanics were the first to tell me how bad things really were--all the dead, all the the destruction, complete villages and towns wiped out. They were shouting and screaming. Not enough help had arrived to these areas, they said, and this was day four! The local government is simply overwhelmed, they said. Moscow is sending help, but it hasn’t arrived. People are trying to clear the rubble of huge buildings with their bare hands and with cooking utensils, hoping to find someone alive.

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Behind them in the dark I could see human shadows running toward Russian airliners. The mechanics told me they were carrying the worst of the injured, who would be flown to Moscow hospitals.

A customs official came aboard, but he just waved us ahead. You could tell we were needed. Even as we waited in the airport and soldiers cleared a way for Gorbachev, who was returning to Moscow, security wasn’t that tight. The soldiers were friendly; they gestured, smiled and touched you. Some of the Americans couldn’t believe it. “God, they are like us!” one of them said.

Commandeered Bus

Someone decided we were needed in Leninakan, about 130 kilometers (81 miles) to the northwest. We climbed into a commandeered city bus not built for such a mountainous journey and started off.

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The trip took about three hours, and it was more solemn than our flight, for we started seeing signs of catastrophe. We saw trucks loaded with mattresses and chairs piled high by people leaving the cities. A man in a truck loaded with coffins shouted to me that disaster was not the word to describe what he had seen. “It is like nothing in this world,” he said.

At the edge of the city, we began to see it for ourselves. Factories and the train station had entirely collapsed. They had come down like dominoes.

Toward the center of the city, the real tragedy came to view in its complete ugliness. Blocks and blocks and blocks of buildings were totally collapsed. Smoke was still coming out of the rubble. It was cold and starting to get dark, which made it more grim. The people were dressed in the usual dark Armenian clothing, and that made it look sadder. They were digging and digging and looking and looking. Somebody would say something, and everyone would run toward him. You knew right away that these people were on their own.

When I saw that one of Armenia’s most beautiful churches, a jewel of Armenian architecture, was almost entirely collapsed, I finally started to cry. I was thinking, God has really punished us, but I don’t know why.

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Hell on Earth

This was hell on earth, Dante’s Inferno . There were thousands of homeless people around us, coming, going, looking, gesturing, some of them with utterly blank expressions, some crying, some shouting. But there were no children or mothers. They were the people’s hope of survival, and they had been evacuated. The men and old women had remained.

Someone decided that the doctors would be more help back in Yerevan, so some of us returned to the bus and set out again. We arrived in Yerevan at about 4 a.m., and after three hours’ sleep, we were visiting the overwhelmed hospitals.

The emergency hospital I had seen on earlier trips had 750 beds but already had handled thousands of patients as best it could. Most had crush injuries, and you must either amputate the crushed limb or wait for the injury to heal. But if you wait, the dead muscle releases a lot of toxins into the blood, and that damages the kidneys, which is life-threating unless you have dialysis machines to clean the blood. Only a few outdated machines were available in the city. It was the reason so many people were being rushed to Moscow.

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On Tuesday we were offered a helicopter ride to see more of the devastation. Getting into an airport in the Soviet Union is no joke; you have to have papers and a lot more. But they just whisked us to an airport I didn’t even realize existed, and the next thing I knew we were in a military helicopter headed for Spitak. We had to land outside of the city and struggled to get into the city. The roads were unusable. Buildings had been bulldozed to make a new road into town.

The city is in a beautiful setting--a valley with chains of mountains on each side. The scenery was beautiful, the day was crisp and clear, but the air was filled with a death stench. We could see that the government was beginning to have an effect. Soldiers were helping people, and some heavy equipment had arrived. Dogs were trying to locate victims in the rubble.

Burned Into Memory

The people I saw are burned into my memory forever: people in black coats, looking and searching and maybe finding a shoe or a toy or a picture of a child and then crying because it might be a grandson. Some women were cooking in the courtyard of their homes, which were totally collapsed. There she is, tending a pot over a fire, making some soup for the family--the son and the other son and the father and the uncle, whoever is left.

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We started asking them, and each one had lost two, three, five members of their family. And they told us, “They’re still there,” and pointed to the heap of rubble beside them. “Maybe they’re alive, but we don’t know, because no one is free to come and help remove all these tons of debris.”

We flew to a smaller town, Nalband, and it was the worst I saw. We landed right next to the town cemetery, and one look told the whole story. There were hundreds and hundreds of new graves in this little town of 4,000 people. A villager told us they had buried 2,800 people already. Ninety percent of the townsfolk had died. Ninety percent.

He showed me the kindergarten, now just a pile of stone with a small sock or bloodied shirt here and there. It was more than I wanted to see. I sat down; I’d had enough. I started walking toward the helicopter where I could sit and wait for the others.

As I neared the cemetery, I saw this little truck approaching. There was an old man driving and a young man next to him, and as the truck turned, I saw two coffins sticking out of the back. And I said to myself, “My God, this is a funeral.”

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Had to Do Something

My steps followed this truck as if something magnetic was pulling me. This man could have been my grandfather, the typical Armenian attached to his little town by generations. He had seen all kinds of good and bad from this land, and right now it was mainly bad. I felt very much that I had to do something to help him.

I walked behind the little truck, and it stopped beside an open grave. I helped them carry the coffins. By now some of the women from the village had come wailing and shouting and crying and mourning, and some of our party had come as well.

The old man was about 50 years old; over there 50 is old. In the coffins were his wife and teen-age son. They had gone to Spitak to shop and were killed. But this old man, he was happy. “I am lucky,” he told me. “I’m so lucky that I was able to locate my family.” Because most people were not able to do that.

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Can you imagine the emotion of this moment? Everyone was crying. We lowered the coffins into the grave and started throwing in the earth. And when I touched that earth, I felt strong. That black, rich Armenian soil, maybe made with blood from battles and massacres of the past, I suddenly felt a union with it. It was an existential moment for me. Suddenly my sorrow turned into some kind of positive feeling. The land was still there. Human beings come and go, but the land stays. That is the mystery of our people: We’re attached to the land, and the land is permanent, it stays, it is where everything is.

And standing by the grave of his wife and son in the ruins of his village, this old man was still gracious and considerate. I was dropping soil into the grave, and he said, “Oh, don’t do that, your hands are getting dirty. You’re a guest.” In the middle of all this, he was worried about the welfare of his guests. He had no idea what was going through me during that symbolic gesture.

Help Was Everywhere

Wednesday in Yerevan, organized help was everywhere and supplies were plentiful enough to become a warehousing problem. The Americans, Swiss, Dutch, British, Germans, French, Italians, all were there with their best equipment. Help had arrived in force from Moscow.

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I visited the hospitals again, and the treatment was so good and compassionate. The international cooperation was beautiful to see. And I needed to see it; it revived my faith in human society.

That afternoon I took a walk in Yerevan just to see how people were feeling. They were living. Life was going on. I stopped at a little tea shop and listened to the people, and they were talking about their jobs and their kids. Suddenly the earthquake was not the center of attention. They were ready to rebuild.

One of my friends called that day and invited me and the other Americans for dinner. “We have to do something to make you feel at home,” he said.

We went to a private home, where a table from here to there was set with all kinds of gourmet dishes. The whole night was spent toasting friendship and America and Soviet-American cooperation and better days. We drank to the victims, but also to the future.

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It was a very good transition from yesterday to tomorrow, and I was happy for it.


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