The Untold Story: The Earthquake that Shook Armenia, The Relief Effort that Changed the World: Part 1

The Untold Story: The Earthquake that Shook Armenia, The Relief Effort that Changed the World: Part 1_98020

John A. Simourian was a legendary athlete at Watertown High School and Harvard College during the mid-1950s and his successes on the football and baseball fields made him one of the most celebrated Armenian-American sports figures in the 20th century.

Yet unbeknownst to everyone except a few close friends, Simourian initiated a relief effort that saved the lives of numerous victims of the devastating earthquake in Armenia in 1988 by reaching out to two players he had met while leading Harvard’s football team 30 years before.

The relief effort, which depended on a secret agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union to succeed, was spurred by an entreaty to Simourian by his wife, Michele, that “we’ve got to do something” hours after learning of the disaster.

Three decades later, the devastating earthquake is a reminder of the horrific events that Armenia and its people has had to endure to survive through history. But a closer look of what followed it, particularly the collapse of Communism and the closer ties between those in the diaspora and the homeland, is also a tribute to the distinctly Armenian characteristic of not only surviving national tragedy but becoming stronger from it.

For Simourian, that journey began the morning after he learned of the earthquake. From his office as president of his family-owned transportation company, he called the chief of one of the country’s largest manufacturers of dialysis equipment, a man whom Simourian had competed against while quarterbacking Harvard’s football team and told him of the crisis.

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Having seen television images of the devastation, Vernon R. Loucks, Jr., chairman of Baxter International and former end for Yale’s varsity football team, was only too willing to help with a massive relief effort. Baxter would donate more than a million dollars’ worth of modern dialysis equipment — as well as the doctors and technicians to operate them — that was desperately needed in Armenia.

“I consider what we did here perhaps the best thing I ever accomplished in my business career,” said Loucks, now 83. “And the real reason I did it was because of the sense of urgency in John’s voice.”

But Loucks knew that the 20 machines and related equipment needed to get to Armenia immediately or they would do little good to bring medical relief to the earthquake victims. Survivors of collapsed buildings invariably suffer shock, which can lead to fatal kidney damage unless treated with dialysis quickly.

Loucks asked Simourian if he knew anyone in Washington, DC who could cut through the red tape and expedite the transport of the equipment from the United States to Yerevan. Simourian’s next phone call was to the most important person he knew in Washington — US Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, an influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who had been an end on the Harvard University varsity football team that Simourian played for during the 1950s.

Kennedy too had seen the television coverage of the devastation that the earthquake had brought and pledged to Simourian that he would do anything he could do and do it as soon as possible. But, according to Simourian, Kennedy insisted on one condition — that neither Simourian nor Loucks make any mention of Kennedy’s involvement in getting the desperately-needed approvals and permits granted. Simourian — and Loucks — kept that pledge for three decades even though the doors that he helped open for them were monumental and their impact both life-saving and long-lasting for Armenia.

Kennedy’s official papers cataloguing his work in the Senate have yet to be made public so documenting the actual steps he might have taken to facilitate the Baxter shipment from the United States to Armenia was impossible. However, Kennedy spoke of his commitment to the relief effort a few weeks later when the Soviet Union placed a sudden halt on all relief shipments to Yerevan. At a press conference at Boston’s Logan Airport where several planes filled with emergency goods had been delayed from taking off, Kennedy said: “It will not only be physical things on that flight but, more deeply, it will be prayers and a sense of loss. This isn’t just one plane. There will be a second plane, and a third plane, and a fourth plane. The American people are resolute, and we are going to continue our efforts for Armenia.”

But by that time the Baxter dialysis machines had already arrived in Yerevan and had been installed and were being used to treat needy victims. How did it get there — by an extraordinary concession to America’s fiercest Cold War adversary. Apparently through Kennedy’s intercession, the Pentagon cleared a Soviet military transport plane to land at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland, the same airfield used by the President’s Air Force One, and take off from there to Yerevan.

At the same time, again apparently through Kennedy’s influence, the US State Department and the Soviet embassy in Washington gave immediate approval to allow Dr. Allan Collins, a Minnesota kidney specialist, and three Baxter engineers and technicians to fly aboard the military transport plane — squeezed in with the 80,000 pounds of dialysis equipment — from Andrews Air Force Base to Yerevan.

“I’ve been around government operations before, but I’d never seen anything like this,” recalled David Walker, a Baxter engineer who helped retrofit the new dialysis machines to make certain they would work once they arrived in Yerevan. “I still can’t believe it happened — loading modern, American healthcare equipment onto a Russian plane on what has to be one of the most secure American military bases there is.”

The flight — which stopped in Newfoundland and Moscow before reaching Armenia — lasted 20 hours. On arrival in Yerevan on December 20, the dialysis machines were immediately placed into the two Yerevan hospitals designated to treat those suffering from kidney damage.

The situation on the ground in Yerevan was near-desperate. According to Dr. James Tattersall, a British doctor who was one of the first medical personnel to rush to Armenia on hearing of the earthquake — arriving in Yerevan only days later — the need for the new kidney dialysis machines was urgent. He estimated that approximately 1,500 people, who had been rescued from collapsed buildings in Spitak and Leninakan (now Gyumri) and rushed to Yerevan for emergency dialysis treatment, died at the hospitals because of the lack of adequate dialysis equipment in operation at the time of the earthquake.

Ultimately, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who cut short a visit to the United States to rush to the earthquake-stricken region, would give official authorization for Armenia to accept humanitarian aid from the United States and the rest of the world. In all, more than 100 countries would respond. But, according to Dr. Sevak Avagyan, then a deputy within the Armenian Ministry of Health, it was the Baxter shipment of dialysis equipment that convinced the Soviet officials that they needed to accept humanitarian assistance from foreign countries.

 “The only way to save those rescued from collapsed buildings was to get them on dialysis but our equipment was outdated and totally unable to meet the overwhelming demand,” said Avagyan, who is now Executive Director of the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry in Yerevan. “Baxter was one of the first to arrive. They opened the door.”

Thirty years after the devastating earthquake, Simourian, having told only a few close friends about the relief effort over the years, spoke of it again over a recent dinner with Zaven Khanjian, Executive Director/CEO of the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA). Khanjian was so moved by the account, he asked Simourian to allow him to make it public. I was contacted by the AMAA and asked to connect with Simourian. I did and looking as fit and focused when he was earning headlines as a standout athlete at Watertown High School and Harvard, Simourian agreed to tell me the story of the relief mission.

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