2016's Deadliest Earthquake

by Patrick Watts, ’09. Photos courtesy of Watts.

Editor’s Note: Patrick Watts is a 2009 graduate with a degree in plastics and polymer engineering technology. After three and a half years in the industry, he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to join the staff of Inca Link, a Christian organization for which he served as an intern while a Penn College student. Watts serves as a liaison between volunteer teams and interns from the U.S. and the ministry partners with whom they’ll work in Ecuador, Colombia and Peru, coordinating the logistics of their stays.

The article’s author, Patrick Watts, takes a selfie during recovery work. Debris lines a street in the coastal city of Portaviejo, Ecuador, following a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in April. Another damaged building in Portaviejo Ecuadorian military provide security for the transfer of donated goods into a distribution center at Templo Metropolitano Alianza, a church in Portaviejo.

What were you doing at 6:58 p.m. EST on April 16, 2016?

Portions of walls crumbled at a church in the coastal city of Manta, Ecuador, where Inca Link coordinates a ministry program for children.

Allow me to give you a hint: It was a Saturday evening. Maybe you don’t remember, but for millions of people in Ecuador, that moment will be remembered for decades. As for me, I had just arrived home to my apartment on the second floor of a five-story building in the mountainous city of Quito, Ecuador. I had just prepared to warm my dinner in the microwave as I loaded the Pirates’ baseball game on my computer.

That’s what I was doing when my world began to shake. My first thought was, “Another average tremor, no big deal.” However, after 15 seconds … 20 seconds … 25 …, the shaking was getting stronger and not stopping. “What do I do?... Should I get in a doorway? Run outside? ... Is there time to do either?” I dashed to my tiny bathroom and scrambled into the shower stall. “Is this right? What will happen now?”

After about 45 seconds, the city of Quito stopped shaking from the massive, 7.8 magnitude earthquake that had just rocked the coastal region. The epicenter was about 110 miles from the capital city.

Texts, phone calls and Whatsapp messages started immediately. My dinner plate would remain in the microwave for the next three hours. The routine of life would be set aside for much longer until the safety of friends and ministry workers could be confirmed. Communication lines between the coastal plains and the rest of the country quickly became clogged as family members, rescue personnel and emergency responders all sprang into action.

Though Quito was marginally affected, those along the coast of Ecuador did not escape the tremendous power of the quake. Diana Avendaño, a member of Templo Metropolitano Alianza church in Portoviejo, was at home at the time, preparing her house to host a weekly, Saturday evening young adults gathering. She and eight other family members live just two blocks from the church. When the clock struck 6:58 p.m., four people were in the house. Her youngest brother had just finished showering on the third floor. Her mother was in the kitchen, just a few yards from Diana as she walked through a doorway to speak with her friend Ronny, the guitarist practicing worship songs to be sung at the meeting.

At a garbage dump in Portoviejo, where recyclers made their livings sorting through trash piles, rubble from the crumbled buildings buried their livelihoods.

Diana recalled feeling the first wave from the earthquake and then just darkness. There was a roar after the electricity went out. She thought a wall had fallen on her legs; she was trapped and unable to free herself. Cries for her mother and for Ronny were returned by their screams. They were just a few yards from each other, but yelling was the only way to communicate, as rubble now filled the space between them. Diana reached out and felt Ronny’s pant leg, but he was soon overwhelmed by shock and fled the conversation as he’d wished to flee the concrete surrounding him. The entire four-story home had collapsed in a domino-style fashion onto the sidewalk and main avenue.

Thankfully, Diana, her family members, and Ronny were only trapped for a few hours and escaped with minor injuries. Curiously, their house was the only one destroyed in their neighborhood. Just a mile away, Portoviejo’s downtown was severely damaged. Stories of miraculous survivals would be told, including a 72-year-old man found alive 13 days later, but by the final count, 673 persons lost their lives as a result of the 2016 Ecuador earthquake. Over 27,000 more were injured. Millions of lives were affected as homes, businesses and families suffered incalculable damages. This earthquake was the deadliest of 2016 and tied for the highest magnitude.

Inca Link, the organization with which I am affiliated, immediately sprang into action. Phone calls and texts flew from Quito to our ministry locations in two of the hardest-hit cities on the coast of Ecuador: Manta and Portoviejo. Were our friends safe? What is the extent of the damage? How can Inca Link help?

Miraculously, all of our contacts were soon accounted for, and the hundreds of lives touched by our sites were all safe! Inca Link leadership jumped into action, forming a plan to address what needs we could. Friends and even strangers from other organizations within Ecuador and in the United States began to call and email, inquiring how they could help our coastal locations. Teams and donations were gathered and deployed to Manabí province, the area most severely affected.

Many took to sleeping in the streets, both to protect their property and to assuage their fears of crumbling walls.

In Portoviejo, Templo Metropolitano Alianza, a church where an Inca Link missionary is on staff, quickly became a place of refuge and a key distribution center for donations. Here, Diana was one of 30 displaced persons who sought safe housing after their homes were destroyed. The church also housed over 100 emergency volunteers over the coming months. Church members used the small church kitchen to prepare meals daily for emergency responders, firefighters, and the victims still living inside of the cordoned off “Zona Cero” (Ground Zero). Volunteers helped recover belongings from destroyed businesses and homes like Diana’s to prevent looting. One day, we moved thousands of paint cans out of a store scheduled for demolition so the owner could salvage some inventory. Some volunteers also helped search for survivors while delivering aid and donations to victims in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Inca Link has started a new ministry for the children of Portoviejo’s garbage dump. Their parents work as recyclers sorting through the trash piles. The city government has decided to place all of the rubble from the collapsed and demolished buildings within the dump, making it nearly impossible to sort through the garbage. Inca Link is supporting these children with a meal three days each week, teaching songs, good health habits and spiritual health, and assisting with school work.

In Manta, our missionaries were visiting the U.S. at the time of the quake but quickly returned to join the relief effort. They were able to house at their apartment a retired American couple whose apartment was destroyed. An aid distribution center was set up at the damaged Iglesia Biblica Bautista de Manta, where Inca Link’s Bonsai children’s program is hosted. Volunteers from the church and youth group helped sort donations and repackaged food essentials into smaller portions to share with families in need. Since the earthquake, Bonsai has expanded from eight children to 20 and has been able to hire three former volunteers, all of whom were financially impacted by the earthquake.

Watts weighs rice from a 100-pound bag to provide more practical portions for distribution to families.

Inca Link brought 150 youth leaders from the affected region to Quito for a leadership conference in May. This training has given them the resources to assist others in their neighborhoods during the emotional roller coaster since the earthquake struck. There have been thousands of aftershocks. Fear floods back into the hearts and minds of the people with each new movement of the earth. Now, even a mild tremor causes great concern. People return to sleeping on their mattresses outside. To them, the threat of falling buildings is worse than the fear of mosquito-borne illnesses, cold temperatures or being robbed – the dangers of the night. The people live with constant uncertainty.

Donations poured in from across the globe. Inca Link’s location in Quito collected goods from local churches, while a donation link was established on Inca Link’s websites for North Americans to give. Over $75,000 has been raised to assist Inca Link’s small portion within the relief efforts. One of the most unexpected donations was a shipment of fortified rice meals that would feed 272,000. This donation came via the organizations Feed My Starving Children and World Compassion Network.

There is still so much recovery work to be accomplished. Inca Link is thankful to God to have a small role in this process. The network of Inca Link contacts established in Ecuador prior to April 16, 2016, has allowed for thousands to receive aid and compassion when it was needed most. Please continue to remember the people of Ecuador as the rebuilding road will continue for years to come. If you have questions or would like to know how you can be involved through Inca Link, please contact me at watts@incalink.org or visit www.incalink.org.