St. Cloud Times - News
        Tuesday, Jan 30, 2001

Students tell of quake damage in El Salvador

by Jon Molene
Times staff writer

MRosa-group.jpg (50395 bytes)
Sister Rosa talks to students from St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict minutes before the earthquake hit Jan. 13 in El Salvador.
(Photo courtesy of Brother Dennis Beach, OSB)

COLLEGEVILLE -- Local college students were stunned by the devastation caused by a Jan. 13 earthquake in El Salvador and left impressed with resolve of the Salvadorans.

Twelve students and a professor from the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University went to El Salvador for two weeks for a January term peace studies course. The group was in the capital San Salvador fewer than 24 hours before the magnitude-7.6 quake struck.

The country's economy was struggling before the earthquake, which caused an estimated $1 billion in damage, about half the annual budget.

More than 91,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and 707 people were killed by the quake.

"There was a lot more total destruction than I expected," "Where they work, where they live, where they go to school," said Emily Keifenheim, a sophomore from Elk River. "They don't have anything left."

A week after the quake, a string of powerful aftershocks had subsided.

The group of five St. John's and seven St. Ben's students arrived Jan. 12 and returned to Minnesota Friday. They spent time in the capital of San Salvador, and toured some of the areas hardest hit by the quake.

The group was led by Brother Dennis Beach, OSB, who teaches philosophy at St. Ben's and St. John's. Beach has visited El Salvador six times, three with Partners Across Borders and two as an election observer.

The earthquake struck at 11:35 a.m. Saturday as the group was touring the Chapel of Divine Providence in San Salvador.

"When it first started shaking, it was more of a sound than anything," said John Schaus, a senior from Eagan. "Once I realized the ground was shaking I started thinking, 'where can I go? Can I hide under something? What should I do?' "

The students were forced to the floor in the small hospital and chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in 1980.

"Madre Rosa was talking with us and telling us Romero's story," Beach said. "The tremors started and fairly shortly things began to rattle. It sounded like a freight train was running by. Then the pews started jumping up and down and the church lights started swaying."

The quake lasted fewer than 50 seconds.

"I had no idea what to think," Keifenheim said. "Our professor thought maybe we should get outside, but the ground was shaking too much for him to move."

Aftershocks continued the entire two weeks the group was in El Salvador. The students didn't learn how serious the damage was until they were able to travel outside the capital.

"It was a mix," Beach said. "There were some buildings destroyed, collapsed. There were others who sustained damage, but survived. There were people living in front of their houses and the whole inside of their house had collapsed inward."

The earthquake changed the focus of the trip for the students.

"Our purpose was largely to learn, and be in solidarity," Beach said. "We mostly took it as fact finding, but one day we did help out at the Red Cross, loading trucks and doing data entry."

The experience also helped the Minnesota group bond, Beach noted.

"It pulled us together," Beach said. "It made us rely on one another. I've never seen a group get along so well and so quickly. ... Most people admitted they felt guilty, but they were glad to have this experience. Now they know something about these terrible tragedies that you'd never known from the outside. When they heard reports about earthquakes in India, they watched them with different eyes and ears."

Damage-Barrio_Buenos_Aires.jpg (59241 bytes) Students from St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict  talk to residents earlier this month whose neighborhoods were damaged by the jan. 13 earthquake in El Salvador.  The students arrived in El Salvador the day before the quake.
(Photo courtesy of Brother Dennis Beach, OSB)

Keifenheim agreed. She said the earthquake made the purpose of the student's trip much more immediate.

"After it hit, we were able to see what they needed right now," she said. "Food, shelter, water. It was a lot more emotional.

"We also saw how hopeful the people were," Keifenheim said. "They really welcomed us with what little they had. Even though they had very little, in Tecoluca, they put together a huge feast for us to have. I was very touched. It also made me feel guilty that we have so much when they have so little."

Despite touring areas where 90 percent of the buildings were condemned as unsafe, the students saw no sense of despair among the Salvadorans.

"Instead of lamenting their loss, the people were looking forward to rebuilding, reconstructing," Schaus said. "They were making do with what they had."