When The Lights Went Out


Present Day Santiago

At 11:05pm on Tuesday 22nd, every single light in the city went out.

The skyscrapers were left like undulating black waves besides mountains which loomed like a monstrous carcass upon the earth. Above them, the sky pressed down heavily, lit by the eerie glow of the moon, and for one brief, fleeting second there was only silence as the city collectively took a breath and looked around with fearful eyes.

Fernanda was one of them. At nineteen years old, she was streetwise and worldly enough to handle herself in a crisis. Her brothers always told her so – if anything she was almost too sure of herself, they said. So when the city became enveloped in darkness she pulled herself up strong, threw back her head and laughed.

¨What is going on now?! There is always something up in this city! Just use your phone, guys.¨

She turned to her friends who were lit up by the moon´s trail, and pulled her phone out of her bag. ¨See?¨ She pressed the buttons but nothing happened.  Now she felt a small sliver of panic run down her spine. To be without light was one thing, but without her phone?

¨Mine isn´t working either,¨ Hernan said and one by one the small group of 4 friends came to the same conclusion.

¨Well this is just bizaare¨ Paula whispered and huddled closer to Hernan, ¨what do you think is going on?¨

¨I´ll tell you what is going on. The end of the world, that´s what! ¨ Chortled Diego and grinned at Fernanda.

¨Are you scared, little girl¨ He said to her and now Fernanda laughed.

¨I am not as scared as you will be in a minute if you call me that again!¨ She retorted then reached for the papers.  ¨Come on, let´s smoke before this gets really boring¨

¨I like the sound of that plan¨ agreed Diego, passing her a lighter.

As Fernanda sucked in and felt the first sharpness of the smoke pass down her throat, she felt a momentary fear.  Moments later that fear was gone, replaced by a warmth that lit her whole body and soothed around her mind like soft feathers.

And then the ground moved.

Hernan let out a small shriek and Paula dropped to the floor. It stopped. And then it began again, swift jerks broken by a vibration that seemed to shake them from the inside out.  The air was filled with the sound of car horns, buildings rattling, and people screaming.

¨It´s not stopping!¨ Hernan cried out as the ground heaved.

And then it did. But now the moon shone down with a yellow tint, it´s trail growing thinner as the air seem to choke with dust. And then the light disappeared completely.

¨What´s happening? What is happening?!¨ Paula grasped in the dark and found Fernanda´s hand, gripping it tightly.

¨Take it easy, Paula, it´s just an earthquake,¨ Fernanda soothed but Paula was trembling.

¨Why did all the lights go out first? Where´s the moon gone? What is going ON?¨

¨Be quiet Paula¨¨Diego hissed but before anyone could say anything the ground shook again, this time knocking all four of them to the ground. They lay in the darkness, one arm covering their heads and the other clutching the person beside them, white knuckled.

There was so much screaming. Everywhere people were crying, pleading with the heavens, begging for help but all the time surrounded by blackness. The ground swayed for minutes with shocking force, creaking and breaking around them.

Just as suddenly as it had begun, the earthquake stopped. Then Fernanda felt her hands and then her knees get wet.

¨Oh my god where´s this water come from – run!!¨ She cried, pulling her friends up off the ground.

¨Fernanda wait! I can´t see anything!¨ Paula cried but Fernanda dragged her along.

¨Do not let go of my hand Paula!¨ She bellowed and the two of them ran forwards until they could no longer feel water below them.

¨Fernanda where is Hernan? Hernan! Oh my god, Hernan!¨ Paula screamed but there was no room for her voice when the whole city was screaming.

Fernanda flicked her lighter but once she did she almost wished she hadn´t. Cars were upturned, powerpoles lay strewn upon the ground, and everywhere she saw people covered with blood.

¨Fernanda!¨ Diego appeared beside them and Paula grabbed his shoulders.

¨Where is Hernan?!¨ She shrieked.

¨¨I don´t know! I thought he was with you! I could see as much as you could,¨ Diego said and Paula shook him.

¨You´e a liar Diego Alvarez! A filthy liar. I know who you are – I know who your family are and I Know where you´re from. You´ve always hated Hernan and I bet you left him on the ground calling out for help!¨

Fernanda pushed Paula from Diego.

¨Paula what are you saying?! Calm down – don´t retaliate Diego, we have bigger problems. Look we have to find a safe place, go higher up, find some shelter in case it happens again¨¨Fernanda cautioned as Diego glared at Paula.

¨Yeah, right. You´re right. We need to help each other. But you, Paula, you cuica bitch, need to know that the second all this is over you will be apologizing to me and to my famiy – ¨

¨No I won´t! They are drug addicts and thieves, and I don´t trust you¨ Paula spat at him and Fernanda shoved Diego away just as he raised his hand.

¨What is wrong with you two? Stop this! There´s a hill over there and I´m going up it. Sort out your stupid issues later. I´m sorry, we can´t go back for Hernan because we can´t see and its pandemonium out there, look. Come on let´s go¨ Fernanda pushed past them and began walking towards the hill that she could make out only by the stream of lighters already lighting a path upwards.

Suddenly it began to rain, great droplets of ice that seemed to stick to them like tar. Walking became hard. They were all shivering. They plodded upwards, falling forwards, backwards, walking with a hundred others with flickering lighters that strained against the wind and rain from beneath jackets.

Halfway up the hill they found a large tree with a large crowd beneath it. Fernanda, Paula and Diego dropped to the ground and huddled together with their teeth chattering like glass shards.

¨I´m telling you, I saw this video on the internet. This guy was talking about exactly this. Some guy broke into a government base and put all this footage on the internet. It was up for 2 hours before it disappeared. They can do this. It´s them!¨ Someone was saying.

¨It´s climate change¨ someone interrupted and there were shouts of yes.

¨It´s the South American plates causing a monster earthquake. This has all happened before¨ someone else countered.

¨It´s our punishment for being bad Catholics!¨ Another voice wailed and there were whimpers.

Paula was crying.

¨My mother. My family. Oh my god – our house!¨ She sobbed and Diego snorted.

¨Seriously your thinking of your house right now?¨ He said and Paula glared at him.

¨At least I have a house. At least my parents work. At least I care about something – anything – that is not myself! At least I´m not as selfish as you¨ She cried between clenched teeth and Diego stood up.

¨If you were anyone else I would hit you in the face,¨ Diego whispered, ¨I will remember this, Paula¨ and he walked away.

¨Where are you going? You coward! You selfish coward!¨ Paula screamed after him then buried her head in her arms.

Fernanda stared after Diego, then at Paula.

¨What is going on Paula?¨ She asked and Paula sighed.

¨I swore I would never tell anyone. I didn´t want anyone to know because it was so … so stupid.¨ She took a deep breath. ¨Diego and I slept together after Nano´s party and then one thing kind of led to another and next thing I know we are seeing each other. But I didn´t want anyone to know, because of how my family are, you know what I mean? So anyway, we were creeping around, lying to everyone and it just became too much. One night we went to the park but my father followed us. He went crazy. He told Diego he wasn´t good enough to date his daughter and that he had to leave me alone. And Diego … Diego just did it. He just said goodbye. He just didn´t care enough to stand up to my family – to admit to his own family – who he wanted to be with. So we broke up. We fought a lot. And now tonight is the first night I´ve seen him since all that.¨

Fernanda took a deep breath.

¨Geez Paula. That is heavy. And Hernan?¨

¨Hernan asked me out a few weeks ago. I said yes. He´s a good guy – exactly the kind of guy my family would love, incidentally,¨ Paula sniffed, ¨Diego hates his guts and always has. You know what Diego is like.¨

Fernanda nodded. She did know, since Diego was her cousin and all.

¨I´m sorry – ¨She started but she was cut off by a cry.

¨What is that?¨ She whispered as a ray of moonlight appeared from the sky and shone downward to touch the tip of the Sky Constanera building, a colossal skyscraper that dominated the city skyline. The building seemed to glow as if with a red fire, while around it the other buildings shone. A buzzing filled the air and then the ground shook. A horrific sound filled the air, a deep boom that seemed to pulse from the earth itself. Seconds later and everything was gone, a huge chasm in the earth that swallowed the buildings whole. The only thing left was that huge tower, now with a green tint.

Fernanda couldn´t breathe. She couldn´t seem to open her eyes wide enough. Her tongue seemed to fill her mouth. She couldn´t feel her body except for the pounding of her heart.

So much noise.

She couldn´t look away, couldn´t look to her friend who had fainted on the ground, or find her feet as Diego pushed her aside to reach for Paula. Her eyes filled with tears that pricked like icicles – her body was ice.  And then a sudden lightning bolt hit the sky, lighting people´s faces that were contorted with terror.

Suddenly there came a strange sound. Like the clashing of swords but similar to the pounding of footsteps or hoofbeats.  There was a flash and the world went white. Fernanda found herself falling, falling, falling but never reaching the ground …



Fernanda woke up.

Chapter 1 continued here  …


Photo:Trish Shaw

How to be Earthquake Savvy

Chile has a lot of earthquakes.

Science tells us we can to thank the subduction fault off of Chile´s coast that is constantly busy.  This sees the Nazca plate pushing against the South American plate, causing wonders (like the Andes mountain range) and unpredictable conditions such as earthquakes.

Personal experience tells us that these jaw-dropping, bone-shaking and arm-clutching  phenomenon are frightening spectacles of Mother Nature´s power.

Here are a couple of facts:

  • There is no proven way to predict an earthquake. This is because there are consistent signs for scientists to measure.  Scientists monitor activity history in order to predict patters, and use sediment samples to gauge when earthquakes have occurred. They then try to track the ´seismic circle´ which is believed to last some 600 years.
  • Earthquakes can be measured in different ways. The Richter Scale was developed in 1934 and is based upon the amplitude of the largest wave (using a seismometer) and the difference between the distance and the seismometer; this scale was specific to California (United States). However, it does not give accurate information for larger quakes. Enter the Moment Magnitude Scale, MW, which measures ´moment´. According to Michigan Technological University, ¨Moment is a product of the distance a fault moved and the force required to move it¨ and this is the only reliable way to measure larger-scale events.
  • ´Earthquake lights´ are a strange phenomenon that are often confused with UFO´s. These strange lights are believed to be emitted from the earth when rocks are under stress.
  • Animals often change behavior right before a quake. Dogs, for example, will often bark and howl seconds before the ground begins to shake while catfish are noted to begin to thrash erratically due to changes in electric fields.
  • An earthquake is no singular event because they come to say hello in groups. Not only can you expect aftershocks, but foreshocks as well.
  • You can track earthquakes using websites and apps which verify recorded earthquakes, seismic activity and can alert you to possible risks.

    Things are going to go topsy turvy. Photo: Trish Shaw

On February 27 2010, Chile experienced the one of the largest quakes in recorded history. This monsterquake struck the coast Chile at 3.34am, 200miles southwest of Santiago and 22 miles below the Pacific Ocean´s surface.  It also triggered a tsunami and the various aftershocks were big, some as much as 6.9 in magnitude. In total some 500 people lost their lives, and around 2.2million were affected. In Santiago, buildings collapsed, whole suburbs lost electricity and water, and a fire in a chemical plant caused many evacuations.  The International Airport suffered damage and was closed for 72 hours, while elsewhere in Chile damage was recorded as extensive, including a major bridge in Concepcion which collapsed.

My friend Felipe remembers this day well.

¨I was driving home from a party when I felt something slight. I recall saying I thought something was about to happen … and then it hit. I was afraid – the ground was moving like the sea, cables were crashing down, everyone was screaming. But it was afterwards when the real chaos began. Cars were crashing into each other as people tried to get home, all public transport stopped, everyone everywhere was terrified for their loved ones. I remember giving people lifts home because there was no other way for them to travel. There was also a lot of fear afterwards because we had no electricity for days and everyone was worried about having their homes robbed. I live in Quilicura and all the streets set up their own neighborhood watches.  We´d light bonfires and patrol the road to make sure no-one was breaking in or hurting anyone.¨

As huge as this earthquake was, it is not the biggest. That accolade goes to Chile as well, when a mindboggling 9.5 magnitude rumble struck Valdivia on May 22 1960. This is the largest earthquake that we know of, since recording began in the early 1900´s.  Although powerful foreshocks (7.0) sent many people outside (it was the afternoon), the Chilean government states that around 2 million people lost their homes.  Deaths from this disaster are disputed, ranging from as low as 490 and rising to 6000, the majority of which were due to the subsequent tsunami.  Tsunamis traveled across the Pacific Ocean at 200mph, causing changes in the sea level all across the Pacific and and damage in California, Easter Island and Samoa, and killing hundreds of people across Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines.

As frightening as all this sounds (and I know it does), earthquakes are a way of life in Chile and you get used to them fast. In fact, anything less than a 7 is usually referred to as a temblor because terremoto (earthquake) is only reserved for the big stuff. Although many Chileans remain a little traumatized since the shock of 2010, many others barely bat an eyelid; follow their advice – they know what to do.

What to do


  1. Mobile phone lines will probably go down. Sending messages using an internet service such as WhatsApp is a better way to stay in touch. Having a radio at home is a good way to keep up to date with information. Try to avoid using your phone unless it is an emergency
  2. It is an idea to include a fire extinguisher in your emergency kit, along with all first aid supplies
  3. STAY CALM! Your calmness will help others around you to calm down, especially children
  4. Don´t forget your pets
  5. After an earthquake, be careful of broken glass, faulty gas/water/electrical connections. Check them and if faulty, turn off (learn how to do this in advance). If you smell gas, open windows and doors and consider reporting it to the authorities
  6. Avoid matches and flame – remember there are aftershocks after the main earthquake
  7. If you are driving, stop the car but stay inside until the shaking stops
  8. During the earthquake, your biggest danger is something falling on you so LOOK UP! Be careful of power lines, bridges, scaffolding, tall buildings. Try to get to an open space. If you are inside, take cover under a table or desk or go to a wall near the center of the building. Stay away from windows and open doors.  If you go outside, remember to wedge your door open
  9. Follow the evacuation or emergency procedures of your building, school or workplace
  10. Include in your emergency supplies enough food and non-perishable water for two weeks, along with batteries, hygiene supplies, a torch and blankets.
  11. Avoid coastal areas such as beaches due to the risk of tsunamis. If you are at the coasts, follow the evacuation route shown or take to higher ground

how to beearthquake savvy

If you liked this, you may also like to check out my guide to the Chilean Recluse Spider here.