Imagining ‘the Big One’ – ‘I said hi to him sometimes, but I didn’t know his name’

Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

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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 6 - Day 1

The silence from the young man we had been trying to rescue sent a shudder through us all.

Joe and Les scrambled to widen the hole in the fallen house, prying and banging and flinging pieces of debris behind them.

“Don’t give up, man!” Les shouted. “We’ve almost got you.”

He was shouting to himself as much as anyone.

“Carlos!” Joe barked. “Cut that beam right there.”

Carlos stepped in awkwardly over the tangle of wood and plaster, but he got where he needed to be and revved up, ripping through the old cedar beam atop the young man’s leg.

Then Joe and Les pulled him out of the debris. White plaster dust and bits of chainsaw-chewed wood clung to his pallid face. His mouth hung open, and his ghastly right leg and blood-soaked jeans dangled as the two men lifted him up. He didn’t move.

“Oh my God. He’s dead,” muttered someone in the knot of a dozen people behind us.

Joe felt his neck for a pulse.

“Not yet,” he said. “Almost.”

Joe got a piece of rope and put a tourniquet on the young man’s leg above the mangled knee and calf.

“Probably too late to do any good,” he said softly. “Just lay him down gently and cover him up. Pray, if you want to.”

Carlos crossed himself.

“So young,” he said softly.

Big One

Two women materialized from among the bystanders and took charge of the dying young man.

“If we could get him to the hospital, he might have a chance,” one of the women said. “But that’s not going to happen. All we can do is make him comfortable.”

They laid him on the ground and covered him with a blanket. The second woman knelt beside him and took his hand.

“He’s so cold…” she said.

Then the two people still inside the wreckage started yelling again.

“What’s happening? Is there anybody there? Get us out of here!”

“No worries,” Carlos shouted. “Here we come.”

Joe, Les and Carlos got back at it. I stood close by, helping to clear away debris but mostly trying to stay out of their way.

After a few more minutes, they were able to pull a young man and woman out of the tiny chamber that had formed in the collapsing house – a chamber that had saved them.

They emerged gasping, shaky, collapsing to the ground without even trying to stand. They were bruised, scraped and lucky.

“Thank you, thank you,” the woman said between gasps for breath. The three rescuers were gasping too.

People who had been standing around with their mouths open stepped in to help. The older woman who had wanted to wait for the fire department showed up with wet towels, and she helped the two wipe the mess off their faces.

“I wet them in my rain barrel,” she said, sounding a bit apologetic. “Does anybody have water that’s fit to drink?”

A guy came up with a bottle of store-bought water in each hand.

The two were gulping their water when the young woman noticed their housemate prone on the ground.

“Alex! What happened to him? Is he all right?”

It had started to sprinkle a bit. Droplets of water were collecting on Alex’s upturned, ghostly-white face.

The woman who had been holding his hand looked up at us. Her eyes were red.

“He’s dead,” she said. “He was my next door neighbor. I said hi to him sometimes, but I didn’t know his name until now.”

She set his hand down gently on his chest. In the movies, somebody would have pulled the blanket over his face at that moment, but nobody made a move to do it.

“We’ve got to get word to his parents,” the young woman said, in a voice that seemed oddly calm. “They live in Aberdeen…”

Joe sighed and said, “There’s no way of…” but he didn’t bother to complete the thought.

I wondered if Alex’s parents were still alive. Maybe not, if they lived anywhere near the river in that hard-luck coastal town. I thought of the tsunami surging up those muddy banks, beyond anything anyone had imagined.

I felt cold and numb, trying to fight off paralysis. All my physical and mental strength had been used up in just a few hours, but I knew the crisis was just beginning. What would we find in the other collapsed homes around us? Maybe nobody was home at mid-afternoon. Maybe our other neighbors were safe. Or maybe they were hurt, dying or dead somewhere else – at the office, at the store, at school.

The faces around me reflected the same shock.

To the north, in the general direction of downtown, a column of black smoke churned skyward.

At any other time, it would have captured everyone’s attention.

“What in the hell do we do with his body?” Carlos asked.

As that question hung unanswered in the air, we could hear people yelling, just a few blocks away, in Fairhaven.

“Sounds a little tense,” Carlos said.

“Let’s go check it out,” Joe replied.

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

Is your home anchored to your foundation?

Get your home bolted to its foundations if it was built before the mid-1970s. Houses that are not bolted to the foundation can move off their foundations during earthquakes. Resources for checking and making repairs are online at earthquakecountry.org.