BAY AREA QUAKE : Double Jeopardy : Armenian Children in Bay Area Relive Terror of Soviet Quake


Time almost allowed 7-year-old Hermineh Nalbandian to forget.

Forget the grinding sound the stone walls made as they collapsed around her. Forget the 12 hours she spent buried alive, unable to answer her father's anguished cries as he clawed through the debris of her classroom. Forget the awful silence of the dead playmate beside her.

But Northern California's big earthquake has rekindled the horror for little Hermineh and 15 other children who lived through last year's devastating temblor in Soviet Armenia. The youngsters arrived in San Francisco two weeks ago for treatment of injuries they suffered last December.

Now they're survivors again.

"I went to the hospital to visit some of them the morning after the quake here," said Hrair Balian, a member of the city's Armenian community. "They just looked at me with sad eyes, as if to say, 'What am I doing here?' "

Like the Dec. 7, 1988, earthquake in Armenia, the San Francisco quake had a magnitude of 6.9. But the unstable buildings and inadequate emergency services made the Armenian disaster far worse, leaving 25,000 people dead and 520,000 homeless.

"At first, I couldn't tell how strong it was here," Hermineh recalled Saturday. "But after a while I knew it was the same."

The Armenian children, ranging in age from 3 to 15, are staying with host families here between visits to the Shriner's Hospital.

Maida Bejzdian, who is caring for Hermineh and 15-year-old Khatchig Haroutunian, had just returned to her Hillsborough home after taking the youngsters to the doctor when Tuesday's quake hit.

"I was on the phone with my son, and Hermineh was standing next to me," Bejzdian said. "There was a frightened look on her face. I grabbed her by the arm and ran outside."

Khatchig was upstairs in his bedroom when he felt the first tremor and heard Bejzdian shout at him to run outside.

"All I felt was fear," he said.

Khatchig, who is being treated for a severe bone infection in his elbow, was one of three people who survived when their nine-story apartment building collapsed in Armenia's earthquake. Thirty-five others perished.

Khatchig plunged four floors, landing face-down in the crumbled stones. His sister and a neighbor also survived; the rest of the family wasn't home at the time. In all, the boy lost 14 friends.

"I was beginning to forget it," Khatchig said, "but when it happened here, everything came back to me."

A few of the younger children were petrified by the California quake.

A 3-year-old girl orphaned by the Armenian quake became hysterical when the earth began to tremble in San Francisco.

"She would not return to the house," Balian said. "She refused to go inside. She just kept screaming 'This is what happened over there!' She was in shock. Her host family finally calmed her down by pushing on the walls of the house to show her they wouldn't move."

None of the host families reported any injuries or serious property damage, Balian said, and the sponsoring group--the Earthquake Relief Fund for Armenia--immediately sent telexes to the Soviet Union assuring anxious families that the children are fine.

Some of the host families tried to shield the Armenian children from details of the California disaster.

"I didn't want them to relive it," Bejzdian said. She rented videos for Hermineh and Khatchig to watch so they wouldn't turn on the television and see the dramatic footage of the burning Marina District or the crushed cars on the Nimitz Freeway.

But the Armenian children who have caught glimpses of the Bay Area after the quake are surprised by how little destruction there is compared to what happened in their homeland.

"Over there, when the ground shook, it shook from underneath," Khatchig said. "Here, it was more like waves on an ocean. Over there, because the buildings are made of stone, the grinding of stones was all you heard. Here, all I heard was the water sloshing in the swimming pool and the dog barking."

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