Recalling the New Year’s Day 1980 Earthquake in the Azores
Personal note: My paternal ancestors must have experienced many earthquakes over the centuries in their native Azores. Then in the 1870s my great-grandparents immigrated with their young children to Northern California, another seismologically active area, where they and nearly all their American-born descendants experienced one or the other of the Bay Area’s two most severe temblors of the 20th century: the 1906 San Francisco quake (estimated magnitude 7.8 on the Richter scale), and the Loma Prieta (World Series) quake of 1989, which registed 6.9. Both earthquakes broke some of their glassware and china, but caused no major damage to their houses. Due to having moved far from California in 1970 (as well as being unaware of my half-Portuguese heritage), I paid no heed to the scant news coverage of the magnitude 7.2 earthquake that devastated the central Azores islands of Terceira, São Jorge and Graciosa on New Year’s Day of 1980. It was only after I learned of my Portuguese paternal origins that I began reading everything I could find on the Azores, which is how I learned of the archipelago’s seismological and volcanic activity, including the January 1, 1980, cataclysm. However, most of what I could find out about it was of a sterile, just-the-facts-ma’am nature:
Figure 1: Location of New Year’s Day 1980, Azores earthquake. Map courtesy of http://volcano.oregonstate.edu
Date: January 1, 1980
Time: 3:43 PM
Magnitude: 7.2 Mw
Aftershocks: 400 +
Epicenter: North Atlantic Ocean, between Terceira and Graciosa islands
Depth: 5-6 miles
Tsunami: Small tidal wave at Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira
Deaths: 67 on Terceira; 4 in Topo, São Jorge
Injured: 400 +
Homes destroyed: ca. 15,000
Statistics alone, while important, cannot convey the human suffering of thousands of Azoreans that afternoon and thereafter, nor the worry experienced by faraway families and friends starved for reliable news. So in January 2010, when the thirtieth anniversary of the 1980 quake was being noted on the Internet in Azores newspapers and on personal blogs, I emailed several friends and colleagues seeking their personal recollections (whether in the Azores or the United States) at the time and thirty years later. Here are some responses I received (English translations of Portuguese are the author’s, except as noted).
1. Even after thirty years, memories were still so painful that one Terceira friend demurred, replying that he hated remembering this.
2. Fernando Alvarino Vieira, longtime head of the Azores government’s Gabinete da Comunicação Social in Angra do Heroísmo, was then a student on hiatus from the University of the Azores. He recounted that when the quake struck he was in the now-defunct Chá Barrosa on the east side of Rua Direita in Angra, eating an ice cream. Although in the back of the café, he said he dashed out faster than all the other patrons, then sprinted all the way home to his parents and younger brothers, whom he was relieved to find safe, and their house undamaged. He returned to the University later that year.
3. Dr. Eduardo Mayone Dias, Professor Emeritus of Portuguese at UCLA, wrote:
I visited Terceira that summer, and the damages were [still] impressive. My friend told me he was driving his new car for the first time when a wall fell on top of it. His wife had a broken leg, but at the hospital they only took care of it the following day, as they had to care first for the more seriously injured. Very sad.
4. Blogger Paula Belnavis recalled:
At that time we were living in Santa Luzia [Angra do Heroísmo]. The street where we lived suffered quite a lot of damage, but the house where we lived happily escaped. That day is still quite present in my mind. I was 14 and at home with my family, still at the table as we had just finished lunch. We were all together and happily nothing happened to us. Our house suffered very little or no damage. We had such luck, I know. But to see my land all destroyed, to see the sorrow, pain and despair that they lived in the days that followed, is a thing that marks us forever. The event that most affected me was the death of a neighbor who was in the final trimester of her pregnancy. Her own house suffered nothing, but in panic she fled to another neighbor’s house, which collapsed and she was trapped underneath the debris. When they found her she was already dead and so was the baby. I don’t remember her name because I think she and her husband had been living on our street for only a short time. But I certainly knew her on sight, and the fact that she was pregnant and died in such a tragic manner, especially in the final term of her pregnancy, was something that shocked me very much at the time, and when one speaks of the ‘80 quake this memory is the first thing that always come to me. I think she was perhaps under 30, and I know that she also had a little boy. It was a most sad story. That was a most sad day.