Op-Ed

Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘We’ve got to get in there and try to get them out’

Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

More from the series


Preparing for resiliency after a great quake

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Editor’s note: This in one of a series of fictional accounts that imagine what life in Whatcom County would be like after a great earthquake funded by the Riverstyx Foundation. Each episode offers preparedness tips and discussion points. Read more about the series here.

Episode 5 - Day 1

I shut Daisy up in my bedroom where there was no broken glass for her to step on.

After Les helped me shut off the gas to my house, he headed back out to the street, and I followed. He was a take-charge guy, and I needed that. I wanted someone who would tell me what to do.

We walked toward a group of about a dozen people in the street who had made their ways home from work. They were arguing. I only recognized a couple of them.

“A house down the block collapsed, and there are people inside. We’ve got to get in there and try to get them out,” said a 40-something man in a green workman’s coverall.

“Shouldn’t we wait until the fire department gets here?” a gray-haired woman asked.

“Don’t be an idiot,” snapped a man in a Seahawks cap. “Everybody needs the fire department right now. How long are you willing to wait?”

“I don’t like your attitude,” said a young woman sitting astride a blue mountain bike.

“Who’s got tools we could use?” Les asked, bypassing the tension. “Claw hammers, pry bars, chain saws? Anybody got a truck with a winch?”

“We’ve got all that stuff. We knew this was coming, and some of us did something about it,” said the guy in the Seahawks cap. “I guess a lot of you were too damn busy with peace marches and all that stuff, and now you want…”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” another woman almost shrieked. “What about the kids in the schools? I’ve got a son at Fairhaven, and I’m going down there right now to make sure he’s alright.”

Big One

“I’ll go with you,” said the woman with the bike.

“Hold on a minute,” the cap man said. “A lot of people are going to go running to the schools.

Right now we have to take care of this neighborhood. That’s priority one.”

“Obviously you don’t have a child in school,” the Fairhaven mom said, as she and the bike woman started down the street.

She pulled out her car keys.

“I don’t think you’re going to drive there,” Seahawk man said. “The bridge over Padden Creek is likely down.”

“What bridge?” she said.

“He’s right,” bike woman said. “We better walk.”

“OK, good luck,” Les called after them. “Send somebody back here for more help if you need it.”

“Fine,” said the Seahawk man. “Now let’s go.”

I followed the group as they headed to an older home on Wilson Avenue, a modest craftsman rented to students. Its foundation had crumbled, and the peeling gray-painted wooden frame structure had lurched forward and collapsed in the front yard. One side of the mossy gray roof was leaning on the grass. Two other men were already there, in a pickup with a winch on its front bumper and chainsaws in back.

From inside the mess, I heard a man and woman calling for help. Another guy was already hoarse from screaming.

“My leg...my leg…”

Seahawk man shouted to them.

“OK, OK. We’re gonna get you out. How bad are you hurt?”

“Me and Sally are OK, but we’re, like, totally trapped. The walls just closed in around us.”

“Please get us out of here!” a young woman shouted, just short of panic.

“My leg is just squashed,” another anguished male voice sobbed. “It’s pinned down. It hurts! I’m bleeding! Get me to a hospital! Please hurry!”

“OK,” Seahawk man said. “We’re coming for all of you. We’ve got four guys here, and more on the way.”

“Where do we start?” said the man in the coverall. “I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m an exterminator.”

“I drive truck,” Seahawk man said. “All we can do is fire up a chain saw and wing it.”

“Hold on a minute, Joe.” A man in a blue nylon windbreaker got out from behind the wheel of the pickup. “Let’s try the winch. We can fasten the cable to one of these beams and rip this place open fast.”

“Yeah, OK,” Joe the Seahawk man said. “No... wait. We should cut into it a little to find out what we’re up against. If we just start ripping, we might kill somebody.”

“Maybe we should get the jacks from a couple of cars,” I said, hesitantly.

Everybody looked at me.

“Yeah, they might come in handy,” the exterminator said.

“Oh, God! Oh God!” More sobs from the wreckage.

“We’ve got to get going,” Les said.

Joe turned back to the pickup truck.

“OK, Carlos, you’re up. Chainsaw time.”

Carlos got out of the pickup truck and fired up his chainsaw. He started cutting at a section of twisted wooden beam at a corner of the house that seemed to be close to the injured guy. That seemed to make him scream more, but the roar of the saw drowned him out, mostly.

The beam collapsed before the blade was even half way through. It looked rotten.

Once Carlos got through that beam, the whole mess shifted a little. As the saw throttled down, we could hear the screams again, but it sounded like he was losing strength, shouts and screams becoming low moans. Carlos started cutting into a second section of wood, higher up.

Once he was through it, Joe and Les set to work with pry bars and hammers.

It was an old house with lathe-and-plaster walls. Ripping through that stuff was slow work. I helped pull some of the debris out of the way as they worked, needing to do something. After 10 or 15 minutes they had a hole big enough for Les to poke his head in and shine a flashlight.

“I can see him. I can see where his leg is pinned,” Les said. “Hey, man! We’ve almost got you!”

There was no reply.

John Stark retired from The Bellingham Herald in 2014. His fictional account that imagines imagine what life in Whatcom County would be like after a Cascadia great quake is funded by the Riverstyx Foundation and also appears online at bellinghamearthquake.info.

Stay alert: Sign up for Bellingham Herald news alerts by text message at bit.ly/2G8amIy; sign up for Whatcom Emergency Alerts and get the AlertSense My Alerts app for your mobile phone in the Apple Store or from Google Play.

Take action: Family and neighbors are our first line of response in an emergency. As our fictional account wraps up Feb. 25, we’ll offer a printed map in the newspaper and downloadable maps online that will assist you in talking to your neighbors and taking note of skills and concerns that will help us all be more resilient and survive in the aftermath of disaster.

Today’s tip

Have you got tools that would be useful in an emergency?

Pry bars, shovels, chain saws, ladders? Will you be able to get to them after the quake? Do you have heavy gloves to protect your hands while you clear away debris?

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