The Big One

Marie Barski

© Copyright 2020 by Marie Barski

Photo of a canary in a cage.

My father was a nomad at heart and as a family we moved often. One of those many relocations found us living in Montenegro, his birthplace. Montenegro shares the beautiful Adriatic Sea with Croatia to the west and Italy to the south. In March of 1979 Montenegro was rocked by an earthquake that shattered a few windows and nerves. Minor damage was reported. Tremors or “aftershocks” were felt over the next couple of weeks. People speculated that a stronger earthquake could follow. Many remembered a devastating quake that happened in nearby Macedonia in the sixties. The chatter fueled a sense of anticipation. For me, an invincible fifteen years old, it injected a bit of excitement into the monotony of everyday. It was almost a letdown when, on the evening news of April 14th, the anchorman said: “There is no need to worry about the tremors. Our experts are telling us that this is just the ground settling, and after all, we need to have faith in our experts.” I did not wish for anything serious to happen but I went to bed fantasizing about an earthquake that would get me out of school for a few days.

We lived on the top floor of a small apartment building. The sky was bright on Sunday morning April 15th and we got up early. My sisters, Lucie who was nine at the time, and Chris age six, our father and I, sat at the table to have breakfast. Our mother was at the hospital with our baby brother. He had an ear infection and they kept them both for a few days as was customary at the time. During the meal we felt a tremor. We looked at each other and I looked at my father. His demeanor changed “hurry up and finish eating” he ordered. He would tell us later that had a premonition. He knew another jolt was coming and wanted us to have breakfast as that was to be our only meal that day. Little Chris was the slowest to finish her food. Just as she was having the last of it everything started shaking violently. We jumped from the table and anchored ourselves best we could in the door frame between the kitchen and the hallway. All four of us managed to fit. My father’s back was against one side of the frame, mine against the other, with Lucie and Chris in between. The shaking was intense and we tried hard to stay on our feet. We knew that this was it, the big one, and not just another tremor. My father was steadying himself with one arm while holding a free standing bookcase with the other to prevent it from tumbling on us. The books went every which way, the bookcase rocked but stayed put. I was busy trying to separate Lucie from Chris. Lucie had grabbed Chris into a death hug, her arms around Chris’ neck so tight that I feared she would strangle her. Both were red in the face, Lucie from wailing like a siren, rhythmically with the motion, and Chris from lack of oxygen. The quake lasted an amazingly long time in the slow motion of the moment. When everything stopped my father ordered us out of the building. We ran downstairs without looking back. We heard later that the shaking lasted a mere twelve seconds. It felt longer.

In the yard below neighbors were gathering. One of them, still in her nightgown, was trembling and crying. I thought it was a rather undignified way for a grown up to behave. Everyone else was calm, at least on the surface. We looked at each other without speaking. The sun was already high in the sky announcing a warm day. The neighbor from across the hall came to ask my father for help. His elderly mother was still upstairs. Without hesitation my father followed him back inside. He said later that he felt reluctant but it did not show. It didn’t matter. In Montenegro one cannot refuse a neighbor in need. They reappeared a little while later having carried the hefty old woman down three flights of stairs. I was happy to have him back.

We piled into our car, a light blue Volkswagen Beetle, and headed for the hospital to look for my mother and brother. From the passenger seat I had a good view of the quake’s aftermath. Everyone was outdoors gathered in small groups by their buildings. People seemed either in shock or trying to assess the situation. Many buildings were damaged; broken windows, fissures running down the facades and chimneys piled on the ground. Cars lay crushed beneath collapsed walls. The most disconcerting for me were the gaping cracks in the road, pavement broken like crackers. I suddenly understood the power of nature to undo what man had done. I felt humbled and very small. Vulnerability crept in and I said a silent prayer. I hoped there would be enough road to get us to the hospital in the old part of town. Traffic was slow but moving steadily. As we made the turn from the main road onto the hospital grounds, I thought I caught a glimpse of my mother in the back of someone’s car, heading in the opposite direction. I told my father but he wanted to make sure so we drove to the hospital to check. The hospital had been evacuated and everyone was outside, patients sitting or lying on the lawn, and nurses distributing blankets and tending to them the best they could. My father asked around but in the commotion no one could confirm where my mother was. We decided to head home hoping that she and my brother made it back. As we drove away we saw the injured starting to pour in, a caravan of cars and people. I recognized a school friend being carried by two men, her eyes puffy and cheeks wet from tears.

We were relieved to find my mother and brother waiting in the yard. Worried about us, she had taken a ride with a stranger. She left the hospital still wearing a nightgown, with my six-month-old brother in her arms, a baby blanket and a bottle of formula. Like my father, she wanted to make sure that there was at least one meal for him. The neighbors told her that we were OK. We were thankful to be reunited. My parents discussed what to do next. No one was sure of the magnitude of the earthquake or how far it reached. A neighbor brought a small portable radio and we gathered around to hear the news. People from the neighboring buildings came to share what they knew. Word spread that the coast had taken the worst hit while Titograd farther inland was fine. My parents decided to try to reach Titograd where my grandfather lived. They believed that this was a better option than waiting around for help to arrive. My father was to go back to our apartment and grab a few things for the road, but he didn’t know where the diapers or baby clothes were so I volunteered to go with him. After hesitating for a moment, my parents allowed me to go in. I ran upstairs but paused at the entrance. I needed a moment to process what I was seeing. The floor was littered with books. I had to walk carefully to avoid stepping on them. To my left, clothes were spilling from an open wardrobe. The kitchen floor was covered in broken porcelain and glass. Dishes had come crashing through the glass doors of the china cabinet. The breakfast leftovers were on the floor between pieces of plates. Pots that were on the stove were flung across the room. In the living room all the furniture had moved away from the walls and formed an island in the center, all pressed together. It was like the sofas tried to make a break for it at the same time and crashed into one another. Most of my father’s paintings had come off their hooks, the few left hanging were crooked. Only one remained undisturbed; a representation of Creation: Eve in her full naked glory, Adam standing behind her and off to the side looking nervous, and in the background were God’s giant outstretched hands. My father later said that he took it as a sign that God was once again watching over us. The quake had rearranged everything. The TV was on its side, as was the canary’s cage. I picked it up but my father yelled at me to leave it. The room looked so different that it took me a moment to find what I had come for. I gathered an armful of diapers and clothes. My father grabbed the liquor bottle, which was amazingly still on the table. We hurried downstairs. I don’t remember if he bothered locking the door. We got into the car once again and headed into a changed landscape. Mom was in the back with little Sergei on her lap, Chris and Lucie beside her. Lucie was very upset that Luciano the canary was still in the apartment. She pleaded with my father to retrieve him but to no avail. She didn’t speak to him for a few days afterwards but he didn’t notice.

I was again in the passenger seat. As we drove away, I glanced at the people in the yard, our neighbors. Some I liked, some I didn’t, but I never saw any of them again. Our building was condemned and by the time we returned six months later they were all relocated elsewhere.

The road out of town led through the center of the city. Not one street was left intact. The same scene of damaged buildings and people gathered in front of them repeated itself at every corner. The best hotel in town looked like a stack of pancakes. The balconies were piled on top of one another, the floors between had disintegrated. Soldiers from the local detachment were in the streets asking people where they were going and telling them what they thought would be the best way to get there. They stopped our car. My father rolled down the window and told them that we were heading to Titograd. They were doubtful that we would make it but didn’t stop us from trying. We pressed on, hoping for the best and praying silently. We joined the procession of vehicles rolling out of town. The stone houses of the villages along the way fared worse than the steel and concrete buildings in town. Many simply crumbled. Others were left standing with the loss of an entire wall, making them look like doll houses. I could see the different floors with rooms and furniture, private spaces made public.

Titograd is 60 km northeast and the trip normally took about an hour. The narrow road snaked over the mountains with numerous precipices along the way. At least half a dozen vehicles in various stages of decay sat abandoned where they had come to a stop at the bottom of a ravine, a rusty reminder to all drivers to proceed cautiously. About midway to Titograd we came upon the infamous viaduct, notorious for numerous accidents, which elbowed off the cliff into nothingness. It was always a bit thrilling to drive over because I could see way down. That is where everyone came to a stop. The viaduct broke off the rest of the arm and came to rest meters below on a slope of dirt and rocks. The new road led directly into the abyss. People were getting out of their cars, milling around, wondering what to do. Our options were limited. Staying on the road was not a good one as people feared aftershocks and rock slides. That is when my father remembered the bottle of liquor he’d saved from the ruins of our kitchen. He took a good long swig. Stomaklija, an herb-based, 40 percent proof liquor, was purported to be good for digestion. People around us were stirring. Some turned around and headed back. Others maneuvered their cars towards to the right, facing the precipitous slope. There, barely visible in the dirt, was a trail left by donkeys and sheep, packed tight by generations of hooves. One by one, cautiously, vehicles headed down the slender path at a 45-degree angle. My father took another gulp from the green bottle and turned on the engine. I think we were the fifth or sixth car to follow. The soil was dry and provided traction. We headed downhill on the uneven path putting German engineering to the test. We were going a steady fifteen kilometers an hour. It was hot in the car as the windows were closed to keep the dust out. At every stop, my father took a sip, and there were many stops. Then everything came to a standstill. Tempers didn’t flare like they normally would have. No one was honking or yelling. We were all in this together. At least we could open the windows once the dust had settled. My father got out of the car to investigate. He returned a while later with no news and I began considering that we may have to camp there that night. There was no turning back from this point. While downhill may have been foolhardy, uphill was impossible. Eventually we heard engines in the distance. Everyone climbed back in their vehicles and the slow procession resumed. When we reached a paved road we knew that the worst was behind us. It took over six hours to reach my grandfather’s place, a trip which normally took less than an hour.

The earthquake occurred on Sunday April 15th 1979 at 7:19 AM. It was recorded as 7.0 on the Richter scale. It lasted 12 seconds and took the lives of 101 people in Montenegro and 35 in neighboring Albania; injured 1700 and left 100,000 homeless.

Luciano the canary survived three days without water and little food. My father went back to the apartment and rescued him.


My formal writing experience until now has been in marketing (website content, promotional television script, newsletters and copy editing), however, this is where I hope to direct my energies instead. David Sedaris was kind enough to read an essay I wrote a few years back and commented that he enjoyed it, and that from the writing itself he would never guess that English is my third language – something I have been self-conscious about. 

Marie lives in beautiful Victoria, BC with her husband of 35 years and their two dogs. Her interests include writing, painting and photography. The themes she likes to explore are: order emerging from chaos, good and evil, and human.

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