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.
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
"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
"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."