We were four days into our fourteen day vacation in Kos Town, on the Greek island of Kos. We had been looking forward to this holiday for months. It had been a tough year. My father in law recently passed away and we had therefore invited my mother in law to join us on this much needed family holiday. We had booked a two bedroom apartment on the ground floor in a fantastic resort with an amazing pool. We were over the moon when we arrived, as both the resort and our room exceeded our expectations.
That day was just like the previous three, we lazed by the pool of our resort, swam, had a siesta, then swam some more. In the evening, we walked into the city centre where we enjoyed a fantastic dinner in a picturesque little Greek restaurant, then went to our favourite little place near the main town square for some ice cream. We walked through the centre, taking in the atmosphere around us. We marveled at the ancient buildings and structures, the marina and the old castle walls. We then walked back to our apartment (a ten minute stroll from the city centre) and put our two kids to bed. My husband, my mother in law and I sat out on our terrace and enjoyed a glass of wine, then went to bed around midnight.
It was around 1:30am when I was suddenly woken in the most terrifying way. There was an overwhelmingly loud rumbling sound as though a massive jet plane was about to crash nearby. Then the entire four story building above us began rocking and shaking violently in such a way that it was sure to collapse and crush both my family and I (before I even knew what was actually occurring at that moment). I cried out with confusion and I felt my husband put his arm around me in a reassuring way and tell me it’s ok, in an attempt to calm me. The bed was shaking so wildly hat I had to hold on to it so that I wouldn’t be thrown off. After about ten seconds, the shaking finally stopped just as suddenly as it had begun and I sprung out of bed, turned the lights on and ran to my six year old son in the next room (who had thankfully somehow slept through the entire ordeal!!). The power went out and everything went completely dark. I then found my way to the second bedroom to check my eight year old daughter and mother in law, who were already up and out on the terrace, planning their next move.
The next thing I heard was a man shouting “Out!! Everybody Out!!” over and over, and over again. An employee from the resort was running from room to room, floor to floor, getting everyone out as quickly as possible before the first aftershock hit. The five of us quickly threw on the first clothes we could find, and ran outside, jumping up over the terrace wall and onto the street, where we joined over two hundred other half-dressed (or not dressed at all) guests from our hotel. We followed each other like a line of shell-shocked ants away from the building and towards an empty block of land close by.
It was at this point when I realised, my god, that was an earthquake. A really big one. I was just in an earthquake. Holy crap! The shock began to set in, as did the emotions. The fear of what happened and relief that we were all ok. Tears spilled out and my legs were weak and shaking like jelly. I hugged my family.
As we stood there on that dark, vacant block, I looked around at all the wide-eyed people surrounding me. Families with crying toddlers and babies, young naked couples wrapped in a bed sheet or towel, elderly couples in their pyjamas and bare feet. We were all standing there trying to comprehend what had just happened and, most importantly, if it would happen again.
There were whispers that we might have to wait there for an hour before they could declare the building safe for us to go back inside. Little did we know it would be days. The local people living near the resort thoughtfully brought the waiting guests bottles of water and offered support. They were used to earthquakes on the island, but at the same time, they said they “had never in their life experienced one that big”. I let my family members in Australia know that we were safe, and although we were very shaken up (literally), we were all ok.
We were told there could be aftershocks and that it was not safe to go back inside the building. We also learned that that the earthquake measured a whopping 6.7 on the richter scale! Within 25 minutes, a second tremor measuring 5.1 struck. I held my family tight and tried my best to stay strong for our kids. If I showed panic, it would not help them in any way. However, on the inside, I was on the edge of a full blown panic attack. What the hell had I gotten myself into this time!? Will I survive this night? Will bigger quakes come? It was my very first earthquake experience and I had no idea what to expect. We found a spot to sit down on the kerb. It was to be a long, long night.
After an hour or more of waiting on that kerb, our bums numb from the concrete, we came to the conclusion that we would be waiting outside longer than initially anticipated and decided to look for somewhere a little more comfortable. We walked back closer to the resort and found some chairs outside the restaurant. There we waited; three tremors measuring 4.6, 4.5 and 4.7 and the many more slight tremors ensuring that we did not sleep one wink. The sun came up and we realised that we had been sitting there for almost five hours. But it was in a way, a relief to see the sun rise that morning. Somehow it all seemed a little less scary.
We were all completely exhausted. We had all been awake from 1:30-6:00am and we desperately needed sleep, especially the kids. We walked over to our apartment building and were relieved to see that it was completely intact. Apart from a few broken plates in the restaurant and some fallen pot pants, the hotel remained undamaged. It was built in 2003 with concrete and iron; built to be flexible and study in order to survive earthquakes just like this one. We were one of the lucky ones. Others had not been as lucky. We had heard that just a few kilometers away in the city centre, hundreds had been injured and two tourists had lost their lives when buildings collapsed during the earthquake that night. As we had direct access to our room, and had no need to use the stairwell or lift, we decided to return to our beds for a couple of hours sleep if we could manage it. We kept our clothes on and the doors open in case we should need a quick exit. Never have I been more grateful for a ground floor apartment. We all fell into a deep sleep, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
I woke up around 9am and briefly wondered if the whole thing had been a bad dream. But the sick feeling still in the pit of my stomach told me otherwise. The trauma had only just begun.
That day we experienced constant tremors. Each aftershock raising our heartbeats and conjuring up that same dreadful feeling from the night before. In addition, every time I heard a distant rumble, my anxiety returned. The distant rumble of a truck driving past, a motorbike starting up, or plane flying overhead. To us, they all sounded like another earthquake was coming. It was a terrifying couple of days. I realise now that I was, in a way, pretty bloody traumatized. We read that two people had been killed and over two hundred injured that night. Terrible. However, imagine how higher those numbers would be if the quake had hit during the day when the majority of people had not been safe in their beds. Just three hours before the quake had happened, thousands of people had been strolling along the old streets of Kos Town. Families with children. My family.
For several days following the earthquake, we were still feeling aftershocks and worst of all, we still had no running water. The water pipes had been damaged and the entire city of Kos was without water supply. No shower. No toilet flush. Not pleasant. We managed by brushing our teeth with bottled water and bathing in either the sea or the pool.
We walked into the centre of town and were saddened by the damage that the earthquake and consequent tremors had caused. Beautiful buildings we had admired were now in shambles. Our favourite little ice cream parlour was so damaged it had to close. Due to unsafe, damaged hotels, apartment buildings and houses, countless people in Kos Town had to resort to sleeping in public parks, on beach sunbeds, or in their cars. Locals and tourists alike.
Most of the hotel staff and their families were sleeping in their cars, parked on the road by our hotel (and continued to do so for at least a week). Many of our fellow hotel guests left, along with the hundreds of other tourists, and flew back home. The fear was too great to stay. The fear of another big one. The lack of running water was also an issue.
Although my fear remained, I also realised that it was unlikely that another quake of that scale would hit Kos. I was aware that the aftershocks should only weaken, our hotel was very strong, and I was not ready to throw our much needed holiday out the window just yet. We still had ten days to go. Insurance doesn’t cover that kind of situation. There would most likely be no refund. We would also have to purchase five early return flights home at an additional cost, not to mention battle the nightmarish airport crowds of terrified travellers waiting shoulder-to-shoulder for hours on end. We had saved for a year to go on our annual family vacation and we were determined not to let fear get the better of us and to begin re-enjoying our time in Greece!
We decided to rent a car and spent the next several days exploring the island. We came to realise that outside of Kos Town, everywhere and everyone seemed unaffected by the earthquake. No one seemed nervous or scared and life went on as normal, there was no structural damage, we felt no aftershocks anymore (although they continued within Kos Town), and there was running water on the rest of the island. We began enjoying our time on the stunning island of Kos once again. I was still quite anxious and jumpy (for a good week after that initial quake), so it was a relief to get away from the city and escape the continuing and relentless tremors that constantly ignited our fears. During these days, I could feel my anxiety slowly begin to melt away as we explored everything Kos has to offer: the many beautiful beaches, the clear blue water, the guaranteed sunny weather and fascinating ancient ruins.
The kids were amazing. They were scared during that first night of course, but they recovered and put it behind them quickly. Much quicker than I did! They put a set of clothes out on the little table on our terrace, so that they would be ready just in case another quake came. Then all they wanted to do was get back in the pool and play, as though the whole ordeal was one big adventure. Though I don’t think they will ever forget that night. The night we all survived our first (and hopefully last) big earthquake.
Before & After:
Original images © 2017 KristenWoudstra, All Rights Reserved.