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Wednesday, March 3,2010

Close call in Chile

By David Accomazzo

I am the luckiest traveler in the world.

Everywhere I go, I narrowly miss catastrophe. Foreign governments would do well to study my future travel plans and prepare for disaster accordingly.

In 2006, I spent three weeks in Israel and left in the wee hours of the morning of June 25. Shortly after I left, Hamas operatives stormed into Israel and captured then-19-year-old Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and dragged him into Gaza, sparking a vicious (and unsuccessful) Israeli rescue attempt. Two weeks later, Hezbollah militants launched rockets into Israeli towns on the Lebanon-Israel border and attacked two patrolling Humvees, killing three soldiers, injuring two and capturing two more. Israel responded by moving aggressively into Hezbollah-controlled lands, ravaging southern Lebanon and displacing hundreds of thousands of Lebanese citizens. The fighting didn’t officially end until Sept. 6 of that year.

But throughout all of this, I was safe at home, dumbstruck at how I had narrowly missed being in the middle of a war zone. I’d slept within eyesight of the Israel-Lebanon border just weeks earlier. We’d drunk wine in a Kibbutz, not fully comprehending the danger the unseen soldiers patrolling the nearby border were facing. It was harrowing and saddening to come back and read the news about the war.

My most recent journey was no different. I spent mid-December to mid-February backpacking around South America, spending about two weeks in Peru, four in Chile, and two in Argentina. Disaster followed me wherever I went. In Peru, I visited the most incredible place I have ever seen, Machu Picchu. Less than a month later, torrential rains flooded the valley around it, forcing the helicopter evacuation of more than 3,000 people. I spent a month traveling through Chile, and almost a month to the dot after I visited Santiago, the fifth-largest earthquake ever recorded rocked a city southwest of the capital and left parts of the country in ruins. And of course, I was thousands of miles away from Santiago at that point, safely watching the chaos unfold from a distance.

It’s tragic and heartbreaking to read about the Chile quake, especially coming so soon after the Haiti quake. The thought of two earthquakes of such devastating magnitude happening so close to one another is hard to grasp. And yet more than 200,000 people are dead in Haiti, and the death toll in Chile, though many times smaller, is growing. The Chile quake was more powerful, but the epicenter of the Chile quake was 21 miles underground and located in a relatively unpopulated area. The Haiti quake, though 501 times weaker, centered just 8 miles underneath the surface of Port-au-Prince, according to news reports. Chileans were lucky in many ways.

Chile’s supposedly stringent building codes have no doubt saved countless lives, but nevertheless there are reports of brand-new, supposedly earthquake-proof apartment buildings collapsing in Santiago. I rented an apartment on the third floor of a brand-new building in Santiago for four nights during my travels. I wonder if it is still standing. It was in a district called Bellas Artes, a colorful, upscale yet artsy neighborhood home to some of the city’s best museums. I was just blocks away from the Bellas Artes Museum, actually, and in the surrounding park, I’d watched a political concert-rally for underdog presidential candidate Eduardo Frei. Frei campaigners had constructed a stage right next to the elegant staircase leading to the museum’s entrance, and there were enough young people listening to the live bands play that I jokingly dubbed Frei “the Chilean Obama.” Now, broken chunks of concrete and stone litter those same stairs, having fallen with enough force to shatter the stone staircase below.

The chances of an earthquake of this size happening have to be miniscule, and the chances of being caught in the danger zone, even smaller. I don’t consider myself lucky for missing the quake any more than I consider myself lucky for not being hit by lightning. It’s just a statistical inevitability — only the extremely unlucky ever get hit by lightning or caught in an 8.8-magnitude earthquake.

Yet I can’t help but shudder at the close call and wonder what would’ve happened if I were in Chile right now, gazing over a ruined city, instead of safe in America, gazing at my computer screen.

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