March 4, 1977 - the 55 seconds some never forget

 •  English

March 4, 1977. 9:22 pm. Romania is shaken by a powerful earthquake. Magnitude 7.4 on the Richter scale. 55 seconds. A lifetime to some. 37 years have passed, but some remember that evening as if it were yesterday. Dr Monica Pop, manager of the Ophthalmologic Emergencies Hospital in Bucharest, film critic Irina Margareta Nistor, and actor Mircea Diaconu will recall the events of the evening of March 4, 1977 and the days that followed.

Photo: The Scala building in Bucharest

*** Dr. Monica Pop: It was something terrible and I hope we never live through it again.

'When the earthquake occurred I was riding the trolley bus. I saw some trees moving but I didn't realize it was that bad. I was a student in my fourth year at medical school. I stepped off the trolley bus at the Popa Nan stop and walked home. When I got home I found my television set fallen over in my bed and I realized there's a problem. I still didn't believe it was that bad and I rushed to catch a cab. There were three more clients and I asked to be taken to the [Floreasca] Emergency Hospital. The cab driver told me we can't go through the city centre because the Scala building had collapsed. I thought he was fabricating stories. He chose to go on the Stefan cel Mare [road] and when we reached Lizeanu, there was a collapsed building. I saw shocking scenes and these were the first to unsettle me: the screams inside. Some were using flashlights to signal, there were people alive there. The building had collapsed. When I reached the Emergency Hospital, about 20 minutes after the earthquake occurred, bodies were already being deposited in front of the hospital by soldiers. The army did miracles then, they had extraordinary behaviour. And from then on began what proved to be an unnerving occurrence because the medical staff in the Emergency Hospital, some of whom had fought in Korea and Vietnam, said that they had never seen such things: people coming in with limbs missing, some horrible things, things that unsettled me the most. First it was that a soldier brought a dead, a child, only one year old.

Photo: Red Cross members in action in Bucharest

I didn't lose anybody in my family ... Acquaintances.

From here on out the ordeal began in the sense that the Emergency Hospital was blacked out, the electric system was being worked on and Professor Iuliu Suteu who was the head of the Surgery Clinic and a military officer and was coordinating all of the actions taken had sprained his ankle and was in a wheelchair. An orderly would move him and he would tell us what to do. Out of the 650 students that were there that year, 4 of us came. Professor Beuran and his wife, my colleagues, and another colleague, who unfortunately passed away, Silviu Opris, and who did an extraordinary thing.

First they assigned us to some hospital rooms and in those rooms they would bring the wounded. They told us to deal with the situation, do what you can. What I want to say is that we stitched up wounds with no anesthetic and we didn't hear one groan. They [the patients] were extremely courageous. The death of a young woman upset me a lot, she was brought nearly severed in two and she told me to not take care of her because she will soon be gone anyway. And so it was. Terrible. The room was very big, having 25 beds in the room and in each of these beds was somebody needing medical attention — some in more serious condition, some less severe.

After we did all that we could in the rooms we were assigned to, everybody got a [medical] kit and did what they had to do. The physiological saline solution ran out, the glucose ran out, we had nothing to drink; washing your hands was not even a possibility. We would wear gloves, the gloves started running out. We did what we could.

After that, Professor Suteu told us to go out of the hospital and get patients from there... He told us: Go out of the hospital and check for a pulse. If they have a very good pulse, leave him alone, if they have a really weak pulse, leave them there because they will die, there's nothing we can do, if they have an intermediate pulse, we'll do it. We'll see what we can save from there. Among the wounded, a voice was heard, a medic that is now alive. I don't know why he doesn't want to talk to me today about these things. Maybe he was so affected that he doesn't have words to talk about this. My colleague [Silviu Opris], who has passed away, took him in and performed a nephrectomy on him. He had a ruptured kidney and if this colleague hadn't taken him, he wouldn't be alive now.

We took who we could upstairs and among them a young lady. In the morning, at around 4:00 or 5:00 a young lady my age was brought from the Scala building that had internal bleeding, she was rescued from a higher storey. We entered the operating room with a highly professional staff: Dr Nicolae Staicovici, Dr Mihai Ciuta, Dr Radu Briciu as an anesthesiologist and myself. At one point, as we were operating and I was assisting, a soldier with a bullhorn came and told us to evacuate the hospital because it may collapse.

Photo: The Continental building in Bucharest

I was afraid, how could I not be, but the surgeons were extremely brave and told me not to fear because the hospital won't collapse. And so it was.

We finished the surgery in good conditions and after that all the wounded, doctors and medical staff were transferred to the Military Hospital.

This lady was called Ioana Naghiu, now her name is Ioana Ionescu. If you can believe such a thing: She came to visit the surgical staff every year with champagne, candy and flowers and never forgot what happened. Unfortunately, the entire surgical staff is no more. Since the surgical staff passed away she comes here every year on March 4. I'm highlighting this lady because she did some impressive gestures. Think about it, it's the 37th anniversary and she came every year. More so, the political leadership at that time offered those who lost their homes a new home: a single-bedroom apartment, an apartment, something. This lady refused saying that she already had a housing arrangement and somebody else should get the house. Who would have done such a thing?

This lady ... she's in a picture over there [on the desk] ... has an extraordinary behaviour, she's a positive person, a person that smiles, that enjoys life. I've never seen anything like it. She lost her family there. She was on the eleventh floor and on the sixth floor lived her uncle with a child about 12 years old. And they died. She had this extraordinary courage to survive and behave extraordinarily. There were persons that took their lives only because of what they saw. Such a strong impact it had.'

***Dr Monica Pop: Bucharest was as if it was under siege

Photo: Blood donors in Bucharest

'You can't believe it. The city centre was completely destroyed, the Wilson building, the Scala building, the Casata building had all collapsed. Terrible, it was something ... The apocalypse.

The authorities reacted very well. The army did wonders because they sent military ambulances and everything ... I only saw military ambulances then. They did very well. The medical care given was of high quality, given the possibilities.

At one point I was looking out of the window of the Emergency Hospital and I saw that the façade had collapsed. You could see in the rooms and there were wounded that were running covered in blankets and with IV's in their arms, running in the street to leave. It was absolutely horrible.

After about three hours, I can't recall how long now, every square centimetre of the hospital was covered with wounded and medical staff. After that we went to the Military Hospital. I didn't go home for about a week, maybe longer. We would go from there with military ambulances in the night to where there were still wounded. We went with the doctors from there to a collapsed building where we had to separate a man's limb; they took a man's hand out of its joint so they could get him out, he was trapped and the limb had already suffered cyanosis. The operation was done mostly without anaesthetic, just some injections. For us, at least for the future doctors or already doctors, of any age, it was an extraordinary experience and gave us the possibility to see how one can react in this kind of situations. You know nothing, there is no driving force behind you other than trying to do something for the people that are in that situation, to try and not be too impressed by what you see, which is hard.

The television stations broadcast it fairly. Ceausescu, from what I remember, was away somewhere in Africa and returned to this country immediately. He gave some decrees from there. He visited the sites to see what it's about. The television stations showed it for days, it was amply covered in the media. I don't recall if the newspapers wrote about it. I still remember images of the collapsed buildings and all sorts of stories, of people who left the house shortly before the earthquake and lived.

I remembered, months after that, two or three months, that I did not see a smile on anybody. The people were so rattled by what had happened, even people in the countryside that had nothing, except for Zimnicea ... where there were no important incidents from this point of view, no lives were lost, no buildings collapsed. It was a tragedy.

Think of the great actors that passed away and others: Doina Badea, Toma Caragiu, so many others.

They found a girl after seven days. Her dad was away. That girl works in show business. She's a well-known person. She was at home with her mother, grandmother and two twin sisters. They all died, she survived and her father wasn't home, he was on a delegation. When he came home from that delegation he found out all that had happened that he lost the house, his family and all that he had left was the girl. The father had completely white hair. It wasn't like that before.

I saw a two-month old child that survived in the arms of his mother or grandmother. They all died, the child survived. He was two months old and had a hole in his cheek, you could stick a finger in, you could see inside his mouth. Now he's a journalist. It was a great pleasure [to meet him]. It's the first time I've met him after the earthquake.

Photo: Rescue operations in Bucharest

I'll take what I saw to the grave. Sure, things faded over time, but you can never forget something like that.

The consequences of the quake were wiped fast. They rebuilt, they quickly rebuilt the Scala building, immediately. Pretty soon Bucharest regained its image.

After the quake, the street was full, there were people with comforters and blankets and children laying down, fearing an aftershock of the quake. They were the people that lived in the blocks of flats. A mass psychosis had formed. I don't think the war was that bad. At least there they had somewhere to go, in the trenches. It was absolutely terrible and with so many human losses. I think more than they announced. That's my opinion.

After a time, they started bringing bodies to the IML [the Forensic Medicine Institute] and it was a terrible sight. There were parts of human bodies laid out on sheets of plastic and people waiting at the gate, relatives that would come to identify them. You can imagine how it was for a person that was not prepared, it was a shock to us and we lived in the medical world. I come from a family of doctors. My entire family was of doctors. For people who didn't go through this kind of things you can imagine what it meant to go to a place to see dead bodies, body parts strewn there, to try and recognize a family member, a loved one.

People back then, I think, were more honest because nothing was stolen. The body parts or bodies had jewelry, had things that could be a clue for those that were searching for them. It amazed me and I think it was normal it happened this way. There was an attempt at fraud, a young man tried to steal something from the building in which Toma Caragiu was lost. Otherwise I haven't heard of these kind of things. There were armed guards. Some were identified by a ring or something. People could reclaim the bodies of their loved ones and bury them and know where to bring a flower.

It was something terrible and I hope we never live through this again.'

*** Film critic Irina Margareta Nistor: It seemed like the end of the world

Photo: Carol Davila Medical University building in Bucharest

'Practically I did not feel the earthquake because it seemed like the vehicle [Bus 34] was going further. However, I saw with my own eyes how balconies were falling,' recounts Irina Margareta Nistor.

'I wasn't home. I had just gotten out of a lecture held by Professor D I Suchianu at the Party Museum [Communist Party's Museum, currently Romanian Peasant's Museum] where we had seen 'Ana and the Commander,' a Russian [film], that I don't recall much because it overlapped with the evening in which I tried to get home as fast as possible, in Vatra Luminoasa. Here everybody was out in the street, in front of their courtyards, waiting for relatives and I had walked from Posta Vitan because the bus refused to go to the terminus station (the driver went home to his kids in Balta Alba) and I was terrified by street crossings because no one was respecting any traffic rules. Everything was fine at home (because my grandfather was careful in '39 when the villa was built to ask for concrete floors that are solid, they shake but they don't break and had already gone through the earthquake in '40). Only the lamps shook and my mother refused to stop them, because I was out of shelter. Furthermore, she refused to go outside in the courtyard as my grandmother urged her, and that would've been fatal to her because the brick chimneys collapsed,' the film critic remembers.

Irina Margareta Nistor says that while she didn't lose anybody close to her in the quake, she considered the death of great actor Toma Caragiu as a personal loss.

'Besides Toma [Toma Caragiu] that we all lost? I remember making a lot of phone calls to ask everybody if they're alright. And among the last of them, as I was certain that nothing could've happened, I reached a desperate mother, her son had died while visiting someone in the Dunarea building. I froze in horror.

Remembering the hours and days that followed the terrible moments of the evening of March 4, 1977, Irina Margareta Nistor says that everything was in chaos and 'it looked like the end of the world.'

She remembers the show that was on at the Romanian Television station in the evening of March 4, 1977 'only from the sinister jokes that were going around: God got mad and slammed his fist on the table and said: A Bulgarian film again? And so came the earthquake.'

The film critic says that it seemed unfair to her the fact that Ceausescu 'didn't feel even the quake,' the leader being away at that time in one of his 'endless trips' that 'were forbidden' for the common citizen.

Photo: Floreasca Emergency Hospital. Nicolae Ceausescu visiting sites in Bucharest afflicted by the quake

'The physical consequences were wiped away when the reconstruction was done. For example, where the Nestor sweetshop, one of the finest confectionery shops in Bucharest, stood, an unremarkable block of flats appeared, like fake tooth affixed by a talentless dentist. The rest cannot be forgotten only that some people remain obsessed with the idea and others say you cant challenge the destiny that seems written beforehand,' states Irina Margareta Nistor.

*** Actor Mircea Diaconu: March 4, 1977 — An experience that those who've lived through it will never forget

'I remember it was a night with a large moon, like it was electrocuted, huge. When the earthquake began, the entire city was engulfed in complete darkness,' recounts Mircea Diaconu for AGERPRES.

He recalls that the sound that accompanied the earthquake were frightening as well: 'There was a noise as if huge tanks rolled over everybody's house.'

At the moment the earthquake hit, he was at the Bulandra Theatre where he was acting, together with Florian Pittis and Virgil Ogasanu, in the show called 'Raceala' [The Cold] written by Marin Sorescu.

'I was backstage and I was watching those that were playing. On stage were Florian Pittis and Virgil Ogasanu. I first heard that noise and then the movement started. At that moment I thought our décor had come loose and was falling, that's what I was thinking, and I wanted to call the technical staff,' the actor recalls.

Photo: Scala building in Bucharest

Mircea Diaconu remembers that after the earthquake stopped, he went out in the street and headed
towards 'the only place that was free' — near the statue of Mihail Kogalniceanu where there was no danger of anything falling upon him.

A moment that eased the tension was when an 'adolescent voice' said in the darkness: 'Oh God, if only the school had collapsed as well!'

He remembers to this day the walk to his brother's house in the area near the Perla restaurant and the buildings that collapsed and looked as if they were after a bombardment.

'The reconstruction took a long time. But that was not the problem. There were some truly unique days and nights. People would practically come down to the city centre and the solidarity was phenomenal. It didn't matter that there were soldiers or simple men sifting through the rubble, they all helped, they carried, they were pulling out furniture, things that my brother and I did too. Everybody there worked shoulder to shoulder, one next to the other. There were women that would bring tea for the soldiers, food and so forth. Everybody was there for a few days and helped make sure everything was alright. There were times when you could feel people truly come together. That's the specificity of the Romanian people — they come together as one, but only in the hardest moments, in times of danger. It was the same at the Revolution,' states Mircea Diaconu.

'Bucharest is in serious danger. There are a lot of old buildings, unrepaired, and other, newer, but where different shops made all kinds of modifications that make the buildings very vulnerable. God have mercy because the authorities are sleeping on the job, because I can't say it any other way, and they're not trying to solve the issue of seismic risk buildings in Bucharest,' says the actor.


* AGERPRES DOCUMENTARY — The March 4, 1977 Earthquake


AGERPRES (Writers: Roberto Stan, Petronius Craiu, Editor: Georgiana Tanasescu, English Version: Razvan-Adrian Pandea)


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