Jewish Pittsburgher was in Chile when earthquake hit

Jewish Pittsburgher was in Chile when earthquake hit

(Editor’s note: Jillian Irwin, a Pittsburgh native and premed student at Harvard University, was in Chile for a semester of study at the University of Chile when the Feb. 27 earthquake hit. She was traveling with other Harvard students in the town of Pucón, 10 hours south of the capital, Santiago, at 3:30 a.m., when she first felt the shocks. These are her edited recollections.)

We were nestled comfortably in our sleeping bags on the second floor of a hostel when the building began to move back and forth violently. As a deep sleeper and native of one of the cities least prone to natural disasters in the country (Pittsburgh), I had never experienced an earthquake before, so once I finally woke up it took me about 15 seconds to realize that I wasn’t in Squirrel Hill or Cambridge; I was sitting on a fault line, and this really was an earthquake that, in all likelihood, would make the building I was in collapse.
The building we were in is made of wood, which is ideal for earthquakes because it is flexible. The building stayed intact, aside from some cracks in the walls.
After the initial shaking stopped, we finally went outside, only to be reminded of the ominous volcano Villarica looming over the town of Pucón.
Throughout the morning, one of the Chilean cell phone companies was working, so news trickled in of the destruction in Concepción. It was not until Monday that we learned of the horrifying stories of the tsunamis that had hit a number of coastal towns.
Power came back on in Pucón for the first time late in the afternoon on Saturday. I was able to go online and let
people know I was OK, although fortunately my parents had already found out through an extended network of Harvard contacts.
As of Tuesday, my friends and I were still stuck in Pucón; buses weren’t running due to road blockages and bridges that were down along the route to Santiago. We couldn’t take a flight either because the Santiago airport was closed to normal flights. Power here was spotty.
Public transportation is slowly starting to run again, but classes, which were supposed to start Monday, are postponed until next week. According to a friend in Santiago, they are starting to see food shortages in some of the poorer areas. In Pucón, as well as Santiago, gas is scarce, and one has to wait in line for hours just to get a couple of gallons.
In Concepción, people are still without water, and as has been widely reported, looting is prevalent. Almost 200 people have been arrested, and a man was killed by police for looting. Also, apparently a plane carrying aid supplies crashed yesterday in Concepción.
The situation is dire. It is going to take time and aid to rebuild, but I have faith in the Chilean government, which, interestingly enough, is supposed to transfer power from left to right on March 11. I wonder whether the new president will still be inaugurated with all the fanfare as would be expected under normal conditions.
I also have faith in the solidarity of the Chilean people. In Pucón I have seen them acting gracefully and patiently under pressure, and I have heard similar stories from Santiago.

(United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh will collect funds for relief efforts. Contributions can be made online to the Chile relief effort at or by sending a check made payable to UJF/Chile Relief to the United Jewish Federation, 234 McKee Place, Pittsburgh, PA 15213.