The Untold Story: The Earthquake that Shook Armenia, The Relief Effort that Changed the World: Part 2

The Untold Story: The Earthquake that Shook Armenia, The Relief Effort that Changed the World: Part 2_98024

With its epicenter about 55 miles north of Yerevan, the earthquake began at 11:41 in the morning of December 7. The earthquake reached such a force and brought such immediate destruction that many residents believed for a long time that it was not a natural disaster but an underground nuclear explosion that had struck.

Later determined to be the largest ever to hit inside the Soviet republics, the earthquake measured 6.9 on the Richter scale and lasted about 30 seconds. The two Armenian cities closest to the epicenter, Spitak and Leninakan, suffered between 25,000 to 50,000 deaths, and up to 130,000 people were injured.

For Armenia, a country of about 3 million people, the casualty level made the earthquake one of the most devastating national disasters in modern times.

Leninakan was the bigger of the two cities struck, in fact with a population of 200,000 it was Armenia’s second largest in size. Following the quake, the collapse of the buildings was so bad that those who lived there in the past and rushed to the scene to assist, could not recognize their neighborhoods. More than 15,000 of its residents were killed and 75 percent of the city said to be destroyed. Block after block of eight- to ten-story buildings, built during the Soviet regime with inadequate concrete and steel reinforcements, lay in rubble. Even though a Russian military base was located there, it lacked the heavy equipment and cranes needed to move the rubble to search for possible survivors.

Former head of the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan, Hayk Demoyan was a 15-year-old school boy living with his family in Leninakan at the time. He had gone off to school with his brother that Wednesday morning with the warning of his mother echoing in his ears that she had had a nightmare and that the two boys should be extra careful at school that day.

Demoyan took notes of what happened during the next several days and shared them with me recently. He was in his shop class at 11:40 when the school began shaking, and his instructor immediately knew what was happening.

“He told us that it’s a quake and that we should run,” Demoyan wrote. “That race was the race between life and death. The creaking of the cement stairs, the party leaders’ pictures and the sound of the shattering glass, the screams of the students and teachers, all mixed together, creating a truly hellish reality. The sounds coming from outside were frightening and impossible to forget.”

On arriving home, he found that all members of his immediate family — his parents, brother and sister — had survived. But so many distant relatives had not, including his two cousins who were trapped beneath a building and spoke to rescuers for two days, before they died.

Anahit Harutyunyan was only 5, living with her parents and sister. Now a reporter in Gyumri, she remembered being at her grandmother’s home soon after the earthquake struck. “Everyone was watching the chandelier, not with the expectation of light but to see if it moved,” she wrote in an article published in in Armenia last year.

All the kids in her neighborhood learned to dread the Armenian word for earthquake — Zhazhq — and her lasting memory was standing in her grandmother’s dining room and staring at the chandelier to see if it would sway violently as it had during the earthquake.

The destruction in Spitak was even worse. The city was virtually destroyed in the quake, and a third of its 15,000 residents killed. The roads in and out of the city were rendered impassable and those fortunate enough to be rescued from collapsed structures could not be transported to Yerevan or hospitals outside of the epicenter. It took more than a week for an organized relief effort to mobilize, and in the interim many survivors slept outside in the December cold. Even the city’s main hospital collapsed during the earthquake killing both the patients and medical staff.

“The scale of the destruction drove people crazy, and each person focused on his own family,” said an Armenian professional photographer who arrived at the scene within two hours of the catastrophe. “Those who were at the factory or office, ran home. They were walking over bodies.”

Even though hundreds of relief workers rushed to the scene to assist in the recovery effort, the lack of power tools and heavy equipment hampered their efforts. An Armenian man who was found digging with his fingers and hands was told by a doctor that if he continued to dig that way, he risked amputation. According to the book, Armenia in Crisis: The 1988 Earthquake, the man answered: “What do my hands matter, everything I cherish is under there – my son, my daughter, my wife and my mother.”

For those fortunate enough to be pulled from the rubble, kidney failure was an immediate concern. When a person is trapped under concrete or debris, their blood supply will continue to flow to their brain but not their kidneys and lower extremities. “Crush” is the medical term for the condition and serious kidney damage, even death, can result if the patient is not given dialysis treatment within a matter of days.

So, realizing that time was of extreme essence that numerous lives of victims who had been rescued from collapsed buildings hung in the balance, Armenians everywhere began to rally. Only a trickling few in the Diaspora had given much time or money to a Homeland still caught in the Soviet grip but the emergency presented by the earthquake was something different. The horrific impact of the earthquake was being broadcast every day by CNN and the major television networks and it gave rise to countless frantic conversations in numerous homes of Armenians across America and elsewhere.

One of them was at the Lincoln, Mass. home of George and Carolann Najarian, both of whom had been to Armenia in prior years in part to study the condition of public health but once there had joined the growing call for independence for the enclave of Karabakh (Artsakh).

“I don’t think many of the others had even been to Armenia, remember this was still during the Soviet regime, but this was something different — the suffering was on a massive scale and we needed to help,” Carolann Najarian recalled.

While basic emergency supplies such as food, clothes, blankets and children’s goods were foremost on the minds of countless people, a fundraising campaign was outlined among those who met at the Najarians’ home. But soon organizations began to be established to address more deep-seated needs in the country, including the Armenian Children’s Milk Fund, the Fund for Armenian Relief, the Armenian Health Alliance, Kirk Kerkorian’s The Lincy Foundation and, in 1994, Carolyn Mugar’s Armenia Tree Project. The Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA), which had been established in 1918 to provide care and support in numerous other countries for children left orphans by the Genocide, began the Earthquake Orphan Fund and provided care for the first time to children in Armenia.

For certain, the massive humanitarian relief effort did not take care of all of the damage done by the earthquake. At least 2,000 families in Gyumri still live in the tin shanties that provided housing for 40,000 residents immediately after the earthquake. But overall, three decades later, it is inspiring to consider the extraordinary rest of the Soviet Empire – since the earthquake. Public outrage by Armenians toward the shoddy construction of high-rise buildings that had collapsed in the tremors was followed by disgust over the slow and chaotic rescue efforts. Within a year, the Berlin Wall was falling, and Gorbachev was telling all Soviet republics they were free to declare their independence and Armenia was the first to do so, by popular vote in 1990.

But the Simourians could envisage none of those changes as they drove away from the Najarians’ home that night after the earthquake struck.

Michele Simourian recalled recently that with tears flowing down her eyes she looked at her husband, and said, “John, we’ve got to do something.” Then she reminded him of his friendship with Vernon Loucks, his Ivy League football foe. Loucks had risen in the ranks of Baxter Healthcare and taken over as its CEO as well as its Board Chairman the year before, and Michele suggested John call him.

A life-saving mission between two world powers would result from that phone call and remarkably enough it was the product of the respect and trust that two men gained playing football against each other more than 30 years before.

When asked recently about their strongest memory of the other, Simourian and Loucks both remembered the fierce competition each showed during the three varsity football games they played against one another between 1954-1956 — Yale winning two and Harvard one of The Games.

“I remember him because he played end on offense and defense,” Simourian said. “I’m still sore from some of the tackles he made on me.”

And what does Loucks remember about Simourian’s play? “He was a threat on every single play. He wasn’t the biggest guy on their team, but he was the most versatile,” Loucks recalled.

Following their graduations, both served in the military — Loucks as a Marine, and Simourian in the Navy — and after graduating from Harvard Business School at different times both began their successful business careers: Loucks in healthcare and Simourian, with his son, building a trucking company into a national transportation organization, headquartered in Needham, Mass.

Despite his legendary athletic record and successful business career, Simourian says the most important decision he made in his life was to court and marry Michele, now his wife of 56 years. Born in France, Michele met John after coming to Boston and later Simmons College. Long an advocate for Armenian causes and organizations, she has served as a Board member of the AMAA. In addition, she is co-founder with Elizabeth Agbabian of AMAA’s Orphan and Child Care Committee commissioned by the Association.

If the idea for the relief mission began with Michele urging her husband to re-connect with his Ivy League football foe, Loucks credited one of Baxter’s vice presidents, Warren D. (Don) Johnson, with immediately implementing the idea and getting the equipment and engineers ready for flight to Armenia.

Johnson was accustomed to emergency missions. A retired lieutenant general in the US Marine Corps, Johnson had been a fighter pilot during World War II and risen to become chief of staff of the US Strategic Air Command in Omaha and then director of the US Defense Nuclear Agency which was responsible for maintaining the country’s atomic bombs and nuclear testing programs.

Because he had participated in negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union to reduce their nuclear arsenals, Johnson told Simourian he had contacts in Russia whom they could draw on. But echoing what Loucks had told him, Simourian recalled Johnson telling him that they needed someone in Washington who could facilitate getting the Baxter equipment transported from the United States to Yerevan.

That solidified it for Simourian — Kennedy was his only hope. In the early morning hours of December 18, 1988, a little more than 10 days after the earthquake had struck Armenia, the Russian Aeroflot plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base, was quickly loaded with the 80,000 pounds of dialysis equipment and took off.

William Lundeen, another of the three Baxter engineers who helped load the 20 dialysis machines aboard the plane in the pre-dawn dark, says he wasn’t alone in wondering about the perilous nature of the mission he had joined. When he stepped out of a hangar to approach the transport plane, Lundeen recalls coming across a unit of US military commandos all dressed in black, whose commander told him: “We don’t know who’s coming off that plane, and we want to be sure we’re prepared for anything.”

It is evident Johnson too didn’t know what the Baxter engineers and Dr. Collins, the kidney specialist from Minnesota, should expect once they landed in Moscow, the last leg of their flight before reaching Yerevan. In a cable to them, Johnson stressed they should memorize the name and telephone number of Dr. Yevegny Chazov, the top Health Minister in the Kremlin, in case they ran into any trouble.

Several years before, Chazov had joined with the renowned Boston-based cardiologist Dr. Bernard Lown to establish the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and the group was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

Johnson’s cable also listed Norman Stein as a person to contact in case the group ran into any problems while in the Soviet Union. Stein, who had raised money for the anti-nuke organization and traveled to Russia on several previous occasions, recalls advising the Baxter group: “Whatever you do, never leave the medical equipment out of your sight, or it will disappear, and you’ll never see it again.”

On reaching Yerevan, they received a welcoming embrace from the Soviet officials and Armenian medical personnel — a clear measure of how desperate the medical situation had become. Because of the antiquated medical equipment, neither of the two hospitals designated to treat the earthquake victims were able to provide the needed care, and hundreds were dying every day or being sent to Moscow.

The three Baxter engineers went to work immediately outfitting their dialysis machines to the water treatment resources that existed at the two hospitals. By the end of December, the Baxter dialysis machines had been joined by other pieces arriving from West Germany and England and together they were able to meet the critical demand that the earthquake had brought — the doctors were able to provide life-saving kidney dialysis treatment to 400 patients.

Anna Bulgarian, a 14-year-old who had been pulled from a collapsed building, was one of the first to receive treatment from Dr. Collins. She was in a deep sleep when hooked up to the dialysis equipment but within two hours, her eyes opened, and she perked up enough to wave to Lundeen. “That was a real emotional level for everybody because this was the realization of the whole mission,” Lundeen said.

Lundeen and his two colleagues returned to the United States by the end of December but that did not end the Baxter commitment to Armenia — Loucks sent another five technical and medical personnel to replace them. The second team’s job was to continue to treat earthquake victims while working to make sure that Baxter’s dialysis machines became part of Armenia’s commitment to a modernized health care system.

Later that spring, Loucks summoned all of those Baxter employees who had participated in the relief effort to an appreciation dinner at the company’s headquarters in Illinois, and he asked John and Michele Simourian to attend. “I knew we had done something that none of us would ever forget,” Loucks said, “and I wanted to thank John and Michele as representatives of the Armenian people for letting us serve them.”


 Author: Stephen Kurkjian

(Reporters Anahit Harutyunyan and Ani Hovhannissyan contributed from Armenia.)

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