Professor remembers earthquake experiences

For one USF assistant professor, Saturday’s 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile hit home.

A native of Vina del Mar, Chile, Carlos Zalaquett has survived a number of earthquakes and made a career of helping victims cope with the effects of natural disasters.

Zalaquett, coordinator of USF’s Mental Health Program, experienced his first earthquake at age 9, when a massive 9.5 magnitude earthquake – the “most intense ever recorded” – rocked Chile, he said.

Zalaquett remembers running through an open-air market toward an exit. He said his uncle, although moving at a slow pace, saved their lives because the exit collapsed on a person in front of them.

He ran 25 blocks home.

“It was a nightmare,” he said. “I remember trying to get through the (house) door, (which) was jammed, my grandmother was there screaming because she was all by herself, waiting for the whole family to show up.”

His grandmother survived that quake.

Zalaquett said sometimes survivors face more than just physical despair.

“Even for those who survive, you have survival guilt. ‘Why me and not my husband, my daughter, my son?'” he said.

Zalaquett said he’s taken his own professional advice and put it into practice within his family.

A distant cousin woke up during Saturday’s quake and suffered a heart attack. Family members rushed him to the nearby hospital, however, the truck they were driving became stuck in a large crack in the road created by the quake, ensuing a three-hour wait that eventually took his cousin’s life.

Zalaquett said he thinks the quake’s death toll is about 1,000 – most of which were likely a result of tsunamis that followed the quake – and will continue to climb.

He credits strict building codes, established because of the frequency of seismic activity in the country, with saving thousands of lives.

Saturday’s earthquake left his mother trapped in her condo.

“Everything, from wall decorations to whatever was on the floor to the point that the kitchen furniture, when it came down, it was blocking the exit,” Zalaquett said.

“She had no water or electricity … It was not until the following day, Sunday, by one o’clock that my sister and brother-in-law were able to reach her. And they spent the whole rest of the day clearing the floor and getting things out of the way.”

Chile is a world leader in the field of earthquakes, in terms of studies, preparation, among other things, with it’s own fleet of planes that can land on very short runways, Zalaquett said.

He said lack of resources on the ground prevent many from traveling to Chile to help, but those who wish to go should use known agencies like the Red Cross.

USF students with concerns for family in Chile can contact Zalaquett at for assistance.

“We survived the ‘60s. We will survive this one, no doubt,” he said.