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Surviving the Lombok Earthquake

10 minute read. Note: We are currently safe in the UK. This post is about the Lombok earthquake on 5th August 2018. //

I cannot forget the sound. In one moment I was quietly typing an email in our dining room and thinking about dinner, in the next a vast deep rumble that filled my head so I couldn’t hear my thoughts. The dining table jumping underneath my hands, the floor heaving like a boat, the hanging lamps swinging wildly. Everything so loud, impossible to process. Vien and I leapt up at the same time, staggering over the undulating floor. One of us may have shouted to get out, but we both knew that already. Surely the house couldn’t survive this.

We got to the front door, locked for the night. The key was hanging up next to it and Vien reached for it; I switched on the porch light knowing that it was pitch dark outside, no moon. The light flashed on for only a millisecond, and then darkness. We were dropped into a deep black as the power failed, Lombok’s power stations shaken to pieces. It was the same utter darkness as in a cave far from the entrance, or like a heavy cloth over our eyes. Back to the key: we had to get out. Vien, unlike in the movies, managed to grab it, slide it into the lock and somehow open the door by holding on to the handle to steady at least his hands – even in the pitch dark with the house leaping around us and our eardrums being bashed in. We each had an arm around the other, holding tight so neither of us would fall as we staggered and clung to the door-frame.

Our fear deepened when the rumbling of the quake was drowned out by the crashes and thuds of falling bricks and concrete behind us; the house was collapsing with us inside. Fuck. We started getting hit by rubble as soon as we wrenched the door open. We blindly pushed each other to the other side of the doorframe, out to the porch, and more noise and then impact: the scream of nails tearing out of cement, splintering wood, ceramic crashes of tiles. Pain: our bare legs and feet now buried up to the knees, and more crashes behind us from inside. I was in front of Vien, holding his arm as the ground continued to buckle; we both yanked our legs vertically, freeing them, and staggered to the right over jagged rubble, under the carport and hoping to take an immediate left to get out the front gate into the street. It was so dark and our lungs and mouths were choked with dust. The ground was suddenly a foot higher with bricks and tiles, we could barely keep our balance on the cutting edges of the debris as the endless bucking of the quake continued. More tiles fell, hitting Vien on the back, cutting him through his shirt.

We were under the carport. The bricks were smooth on our feet, but the noise was louder than ever and more masonry was falling. We let go of each other and I stumbled to the gate, but it didn’t feel right. There were heavy bars, it was big, it was locked. This was the car gate, I was in the wrong place. I kept shouting, “Where’s the gate? Where’s the gate?” I had lost Vien in the blackness, and the noise was still clogging my ears. He touched my shoulder, “Here, it’s here!” I turned towards him, taking a big stride and WHAM, ran straight into one of the wooden pillars holding up the carport, smashing it with my forehead. Vien somehow found my arm, pulled me up and over more rubble that was blocking our path, and I fell out into the street. Where was he? I groped for him and for a heart-sickening moment had no idea where he was, even as our building continued to shiver and crash. Then he also fell through the gate, and we stood in the middle of the street hugging each other, trembling. My head throbbed and hands and legs stung from the rubble.

Within another few seconds the tremors had stopped and our eyes began to adjust to the darkened street. We should see shadows and outlines of houses, the stars bright and indifferent above. Our little cul-de-sac had maybe twenty people in it, turning on their mobile phone torches and shouting to see if everyone was out of their houses and unhurt. Car lights turning on down the street. Our next-door neighbours were okay, she had grabbed their two-year-old and run out just ahead of the collapsing ceiling, and he had managed to run around it.

Down the street, people were leaping onto motorbikes and heading for the hills, getting out of our sea-level valley that lay just a few hundred metres from the sea. We checked on our Airbnb’s sister, who lived two doors down – she was okay. She also had her phone, and we used her torch to look at our house: the front porch roof had collapsed, the car port was hanging at a precarious angle. She lent her phone to Vien so after the larger of the aftershocks seemed to have passed, he could run back inside, hastily grabbing shoes that hadn’t been buried by the porch, throwing them to me across the rubble. I dumped the rubble out of them while he darted into the living room, grabbing our mobile phones and day-pack, racing back out.

Now with our phones we could turn on our British SIMs (thank heavens for dual-SIM phones) as the Lombok network had gone down, but somehow GiffGaff still worked (maybe connecting to Bali masts over the water). No tsunami risk, 7.0 quake on the Richtor scale. Okay, good, now what. Passports. We needed to flee. A Dutch man from across the street came over and argued with us: You don’t need your passports. It’s a piece of paper. But we had talked and planned for days since the previous quake, passports were essential. What if there was another quake and the house completely collapsed, and we couldn’t get our documents? We would be trapped here for longer than necessary. Worth the risk, not that we could possibly know what the odds were. Later, a day later, we changed our minds and thought the Dutch man had been right. The house could have further collapsed with Vien inside during an aftershock. So there’s the question: the passports allowed us to leave the island and not experience any more major quakes, but was a risk to get them.

The Dutch man said he would go inside with Vien if we really insisted on getting our documents. And he did – the two of them, now fully shod, climbed back through the front gate, under the hanging carport, over the remains of the porch roof, and back into the black house. I watched the beams of their torches bounce around and reflect off the dusty air. While holding onto the front gate I felt a new terror curl around my heart: Vien might die, right at this moment, right now, while I stood in the street. He might be killed getting our passports. I prayed to the night and the air and heavens above: let nothing bad happen. Come outside, come outside. And then he did, carrying our 20-litre water jug, cash and had thrown the laptops under a table, but no passports. Shit. He needed to go back in, a third time. The bedroom ceiling had collapsed, as had the living room and bathroom. He ran back in and only a few seconds later emerged victorious. We stood in the street and tried to think.

Just then, our AirBnb host texted: There’s a tsunami risk, just announced. Get out. What did Google say? No tsunami risk. Thanks Google. A new challenge, the fire after the frying pan. Our neighbours were standing in the street and looking at their cracked garden wall: I just finished that last week, you know. I’ve been working on it for months! We interrupted to request a ride in their 4x4 truck due to a possible tsunami about to hit any minute, and that there may be more pressing matters than the garden wall.

Moving at a quarter of the speed we would have preferred, he strolled back into their house to find the truck keys, and then methodically started the engine and eased out into the street. His wife strapped their two-and-a-half-year-old into the child’s seat in the back, then hopped into the front seat. Vien and I slid in the back and Vien urged him to drive faster rather than slow down to argue with his wife about which nearby hill was high enough. Meanwhile I was pulled into a debate about blue vs red Power Rangers and their relative merits with their son. He also informed me that it had been a dinosaur in the house; last week was a monster, and now dinosaurs. The Blue Power Ranger seemed best equipped to deal with this new threat.

[ Caption: Our rescue vehicle and Power-Ranger-loving toddler friend the next day ]

Meanwhile, we drove out of our neighbourhood and straight towards the beach, which had the only road that could take us to higher ground. The roads were almost empty as everyone else had already evacuated. We got to the beach road within a minute as we were so close, passing damaged properties. With a small breath of relief, the road began to rise and we ascended the rocky headland, and then up a steep mountain road. We were safe from the tsunami, and safe in a truck so even an aftershock should be okay.

New challenge: landslides and falling trees and buildings. The windy road was cut into the hill and had tall trees hemming it in, as well as houses built into the slope above us. Quite quickly, though, we reached an empty driveway and field with no trees and a small slope that didn’t present any risk. We got out of the truck and switched on our torches to assess the field’s safety, preparing to go around the metal vehicle barrier. Then we heard and felt it: the rumbling of another quake. The ground began to leap again, and we grabbed on to the metal gate. This was something we would need to get used to… It was difficult to tell when it had stopped: were my legs were trembling with adrenaline or another quake? My legs started trembling more and Vien shouted that it was another quake. We all held on to the gate again, and the little boy asked how many more dinosaurs were coming to attack. I checked Google: two massive aftershocks, both in the 6’s, no tsunami risk.

Another message from our AirBnB host: Where are you? We’ll come find you. I messaged back with the road name, but without expectation that in this dark night she would be able to find us, given we were by a black truck in a field on the side of a tiny mountain road. I hit send, and within thirty seconds she and her husband had pulled up. How…? Ah, they lived on the same road! A few houses up, and knew the neighbours and their truck. Fortune favours the Hilux owners.

We transferred our jug of water into the back of their pick-up and hopped into their truck, our neighbours and rescuers following behind. Up the steep road and to their house: a stunning mansion - but built into the edge of a cliff.

[ Caption: Our bed for the night. We felt as blurry as this photo looks. ]

We filled the next hour with amateur geological engineering surveys of bedrock and house construction (my BA in Geology has never been more useful than that night) to find the safest spot on the cliff edge. We repeated presentations to two very nice panicky young women from Quebec on tsunami heights (our current altitude of 137 metres was sufficiently safe bar from a meteor strike), and stern conversations on parking positions (don’t park at the bottom of a shored-up sand hill that has a three storey house at its top). Vien and I also spent more time that we should have had to telling people to not go back inside, get drunk, or take drugs. An aftershock is only an aftershock if it is smaller than the first quake. If it is larger, than it becomes the main event and the first quake is reclassed as a foreshock. There was no guarantee that the worst was over. So don’t go inside!!! Or reduce mental capacity…

Once we had settled these issues, we found ourselves camping on the lawn and pool decking at the back of their mansion. The roof tiles wouldn’t fall on us, we were on solid bedrock and if the slope behind collapsed then we were insulated by the house itself. Our hosts, given that they were used to running a 6-room Airbnb, quickly hauled out mattresses, blankets, sheets and pillows and we all set up a mini refugee camp by the infinity pool. Our members: the two Canadian women, one of whom remained on the edge of blind panic for the entire time we knew her; a calm young British couple who had just finished uni and were celebrating before returning to London to seek out work; our host Iwin and her Dutch yacht-captain of a husband name Ralph; our neighbours with their little boy and his Power Rangers; Iwin’s sister; another woman who seemed to know our hosts; and then at 11pm two Hong Kongese teenage girls whose flight had just landed and whose driver understandably had taken a good while to collect them from the airport. Perhaps not the most standard check-in experience…

[ Caption: Dawn in our camp ]

Vien and I pulled out our first aid kit that’s always in our day pack, and sat down to assess our injuries. Because I was wearing shorts, my legs were more banged up than Vien’s, but his feet had also taken a beating. I had two very large and deep splinters in my hands, which were starting to throb, and my head had a nice round goose egg swelling up. We used alcohol wipes to clean our wounds and then put plasters over the worst bits. It was only two days later, when I saw Vien without a shirt on, that I saw the cuts down his back. Unfortunately, because we didn’t clean them, they have scarred into pale white reminders of how close we were to being crushed.

We took turns weeing in the bushes, then climbed into our make-shift bed by the pool and pretended to sleep. During the day, Lombok in August is the ideal temperature: not humid, light breeze, perfect for shorts, sandals and a tank top (so many tourists mean it’s a liberal part of Indonesia). During the night, on a mountainside 137m above sea level, it is less delightful. All night we shivered in the stiff breeze, curled up around each other to make the most of our body heat. The rest of the group did the same, packing close together and trying not to move. And all night, around every fifteen minutes, another shock would hit, with the largest striking around 1am and rattling the house, rumbling across the dark hills. There was nothing to do except lie still and feel the Earth tremble against our bodies.

But the clearest memory for me is also the most beautiful: the stars. The airport was closed, the power was out across Lombok and parts of Bali, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Venus and Mars burned like street lights and the Milky Way looked look an artist had rubbed chalk over the velvet sky. It was clear, cold, silent except for the quakes and heart-piercingly beautiful. Yes we had almost died, but this was our reward.

Around 3:30am, everyone briefly woke from their dozes as a huge light suddenly blinded us. I instinctively threw my arm over my face, protecting my eyes, and then took a quick look. A moonrise! It had just crested the roofline and was fat and full like a pearl of mozzarella. The infinity pool was a sheet of rippling silver and I gladly exposed my face to the night wind so I could see what else was now illuminated. And lo, I saw: the ocean stretching out far below, flat and shining until it met the dark mass of Bali to the west. Tears came to my eyes and my chest clenched. It was so good to be alive.

We all rose around 6am as dawn lit up the world and the two white chickens Satay and Sotto came around to investigate the new residents in their garden. No one had slept more than in brief fits and starts. Our hosts made tea and toast (thank heavens for gas canisters!) and fired up their pick-up truck’s inverter so we all could have (very slow and intermittent) internet and charge our phones. We then went to assess the damage.

[ Caption: Dawn over the infinity pool. Not your typical refugee camp. ]

Driving down the hill, we saw some minor damage: roof tiles gone, a collapsed shed. As we approached our area, though, the geology changed. We were no longer on bedrock, but on loose sand and that had spelled destruction for our area. The closer we got to our house, the more places were destroyed. Front porches gone, roofs down, rubble and cracked walls.

[ Caption: Damage to Sengiggi and our neighbourhood. Front porches took the brunt of the quake it seemed ]

Finally, ours: in the light of day we could suddenly understand how close we had come to not seeing the light of day. Our porch has collapsed, the whole car port had fallen and was only being held up by the air con unit that happened to be fixed (strongly?) against one wall, and inside the ceiling had fallen exactly onto my chair, where I had been typing, with the chair barely visible under the pile of bricks. My laptop had a big dent in it to the right of the track pad. The bedroom ceiling had come down, as had the ceiling in the second bathroom. But why had bricks fallen through the ceilings? We learned that the rafters were held up with thing spines of bricks, balanced on top of wooden beams. So when a quake hits, many walls of bricks come crashing through one’s drywall ceiling even in the centre of rooms in a bungalow.

[ Caption: Click to enlarge and read detailed descriptions ]

As we gingerly investigated, and Vien filmed, we heard that damn noise again and heard the house start to rattle and shake. Earthquake! Get out! Earthquake! Ralph and I ran outside, Vien following and then waiting in the door: what if the carport collapsed? But by then the aftershock had stopped and we all went back in to salvage our belongings as fast as humanly possible. I laid a sheet out on the bed and then climbed over the rubble in our bedroom to empty the drawers, passing clothes to Ralph who put them in the sheet. Vien gathered up our laptops and books and tea, as well as our suitcases from the spare room throwing everything in. We’ll organise it in the street, do not spend more time inside than necessary. Then emptying out the fridge because the house 1) had no power and 2) was about to be abandoned. We only travel with two cases and two small-ish backpacks, so within five minutes we had rescued everything that we could reach (flip-flops and a hand towel were regretfully abandoned beneath the rubble).

Ralph meanwhile unhooked the solar panel batteries and the gas canister while Iwin locked up everything. Then we were off, abandoning our lovely little house for good. It wasn’t even 8:30am. Next challenge: how to get off Lombok.

[ Caption: Our belongings hauled from the house, the battered-but-functioning laptop and sorting our salvaged belongings poolside ]

Back at the infinity pool, we set to work shaking the rubble out of our belongings. (Our hair and clothes were so full of rubble that in the morning when we got out of bed, the sheets were full of pebbles and grit and it took two days of hair washing before all the concrete was out.) All of the guests, ourselves included, were on our phones trying to book flights out and everyone was failing. The flights kept showing up as available, but then fully sold out when it came time to book. At that moment, Dutch friends whom we had met in Penang and who had been in Lombok just a week earlier sent us a WhatsApp: Are you okay? How can we help? Can we book flights for you?

We considered their offer for at least a nanosecond before saying YES PLEASE. They got to work and somehow worked magic: within an hour, they had us on a sold-out 7pm flight to Jakarta, and then a 1:30am flight to Kuala Lumpur. Apparently foreign credit cards were being rejected and they managed to whitelist theirs. We began to pack in earnest, and by noon just had to shower and have some lunch before beginning the final challenge: leaving Lombok. Sorry to the other guests, there were no more seats available that day.

After a long hunt for a taxi, we made it to the airport: Chaos reigned.

[ Caption: Lombok International Airport in Mataram the day after the quake ]

Thousands and thousands of mostly young tan blond people with varying levels of injury were queued up, trying to change their flights. The check-in desks were mayhem: we wheeled our bags into the crowd, and ended up getting stuck. There were so many baggage trolleys and no one was moving, and we pushed and pushed for a few minutes without moving a foot. We at last managed to find an opening and reach our check-in desks, but because we were so early our flight wasn’t yet open. In the end, we waited about three hours to check-in. They took our bags, gave us boarding passes, and then our flight ceased to exist.

It vanished from all the boards and no employees knew what was happening. We found other passengers, though, and kept an eye on them. 6pm came and went, then the take-off time of 7pm, then 8pm, then 9… At this rate, we would miss our connecting flight in Jakarta. Our point of no return was 10:30pm, because at that point the layover would be too short for us to make our connecting flight. As we spoke with fellow passengers, we realised how lucky we were to have not been on the Gili Islands: those islands are entirely at sea level, with no high ground, and the tsunami warning there meant that everyone had needed to look straight at the possibility of death. We spoke with one Croatian couple who said they had been on the beach, and then realised that they could only stand and wait. Nowhere to run. They both broke down sobbing and turned away.

At 10:34pm, they did not announce our flight, nor call for boarding. However, they did start boarding for our flight. We noticed because fellow passengers were suddenly leaving for the jetway. We waved our new friends over and quickly handed over our boarding passes, and were buckled in by 10:45pm alongside several empty seats. Off the ground by 11pm, and another big quake hit Lombok at 11:30pm. Just in time.

Then Jakarta, and we made our gate five minutes before they started boarding, and then finally KL, where we were given early check-in and collapsed into a deep, nightmare-ridden slumber. The next few days saw us moving slowly, eating gratefully, and having adrenaline rushes whenever a truck went by outside or a train rumbled past lightly shaking the high-rise hotel. We continued to clean our wounds and remove rubble from our belongings, and then follow the news: 500 dead, and island’s economy destroyed. And there we were, safe in a lovely city eating dumplings and drinking tea. The only evidence the dent in my laptop, the scars on our bodies and the endless dreams about collapsing buildings.

Now, a few weeks later, life has resumed its normal pace and Lombok feels like a surreal dream. We are and were very lucky. There, life does not continue as normal, and is not at all easy for many tens of thousands of people. Unlike us, most people there could not, cannot, run away. Instead, they continue sleeping in fields and riding out aftershocks, waiting for the next big quake. This quake, the one we survived, is the biggest in Lombok’s recorded history – though another 7.0M hit a week after we left, and several new fault zones have opened up triggered cascades of smaller quakes. At last count there have been several thousand aftershocks, and they continue. This beautiful island is in trouble, and will continue to be for a while.

Therefore, please donate: even a few units of whatever currency you use will make a difference, and is the right thing to do. The organisation we have chosen to support is this, as we found it difficult to find established organisations with specific fundraising for Lombok:


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