Recalling a shaking experience

With the 20th anniversary of Armenia’s devastating earthquake approaching, Glendale resident Vehanush Chilgevorkyan turned to the Internet for answers about what happened to her homeland. What she found was beyond her imagination: a photo of her father, Arsen Chilgevorkyan, helping with the relief effort.

Vehanush Chilgevorkyan has no recollection of living through the magnitude 6.9 earthquake that struck at 11:41 a.m. Dec. 7, 1988, in the Lori region of Soviet Armenia, destroying the city of Spitak and severely damaging the city of Gyumri, where she lived with her family.

The United States Geological Survey record indicates that at least 25,000 people were killed, 19,000 were injured, and 500,000 were left homeless. Despite Lori’s being a seismic region, the $16.2 billion in damage was mainly attributed to poor building construction, timing and freezing winter temperatures.

Vehanush was 4 at the time, and living in Gyumri with her parents and 2-month-old brother Vahe. The family moved to the U.S. in 1993, and the siblings grew up hearing bits and pieces about the earthquake from their mother and grandmother. They knew their father had been a part of the rescue effort, but he rarely spoke of it. So the image Vehanush Chilgevorkyan, now 23, found on photo-sharing website was a gold mine of information.

In the black-and-white photo, a warmly dressed Arsen carries one side of a stretcher over jagged hunks of concrete, steel and snow. A hill of rubble forms a backdrop along with several other men sifting through the remains of what was once a building.

Vehanush and Vahe Chilgevorkyan said they always knew their father as a short-tempered and almost unreasonably overprotective parent. And seeing him at a moment when death and destruction were his only companions explained a lot.

“You can never grasp the magnitude of such a thing until you see it,” said Vahe Chilgevorkyan, 20.

The photo prompted Arsen Chilgevorkyan, now in his late 40s, to finally open up about what he had experienced. As one of the few people in Gyumri with a car, he said he drove his family away from the devastation to the capital, Yerevan, then returned to help work through the destruction, using his car as an impromptu hearse for bodies in need of proper burial.

The stress of the two months he spent shuffling back and forth between Gyumri and Yerevan left him with permanently high blood pressure, he said.

Arsen Chilgevorkyan’s hands trembled as he recounted his experiences.

“Growing up, you don’t know your parent as a person,” Vehanush Chilgevorkyan said. “We didn’t imagine something like this . . . now I know that it’s all inside of him.”

There are complete chunks of that time that Arsen said he has no recollection of — including the moment when the black-and-white photo was taken.

The Flickr account that his daughter found the photo on belongs to Zachary Jean Chartkoff, a Michigan-based poet who was a Peace Corps volunteer at the Lord Byron School and Caritas orphanage in Gyumri from 1995 to 1997.

Locals told Chartkoff of how Gyumri — now flattened — was once a city of high rises and trees, the latter of which were all cut down for firewood in the frenzy for survival following the earthquake, he said. Bodies were still buried under the rubble, they told him — what seemed to be ruined buildings were actually mass graves, he said.

“I witnessed things in that city that were beyond me,” Chartkoff said. “So much destruction everywhere you looked.”

Despite the immense loss present in every corner of the city, Chartkoff found himself in the company of generous strangers eager to treat him to happy times despite their own struggle to stay afloat, he said. More than a decade later, Chartkoff remains fascinated by the Armenian language and modern culture. His blog is full of references to Armenian music and poetry. He is currently working on putting together a fundraiser to benefit the orphanage he once worked at.

“Going to Armenia changed my life forever,” Chartkoff said. “There’s no way I could downplay that.”

While in Gyumri, Chartkoff purchased a pack of postcards with images from the earthquake as a memento. Tired of struggling to find the definitive story of the earthquake a decade later, Chartkoff scanned the postcards and posted them online last year so that there would at least be images to tell the story. The back of the postcards attributes the photos to Armenpress, a Yerevan-based news agency that still operates.

“That photo brings all the pieces together,” Vahe Chilgevorkyan said.

Today, Gyumri exists as a contemporary testament to its marred history. Reconstruction is still taking place, with many parts of the city totally renewed. But reminders of the earthquake are everywhere: Whole families still live in shacks fashioned out of emergency containers flown in by foreign aid workers in 1988, and some ruined buildings have yet to be torn down.

Vehanush and Vahe Chilgevorkyan have yet to go back and see their birthplace. But Chartkoff’s postcard gave them something tangible to create a connection with a time and place they have no recollection of.

“There is information in our dad’s story that is of value,” Vehanush Chilgevorkyan said. “It’s the human experience.”

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World