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The 1988 Earthquake

The first shock, of magnitude 6.9, was at 11.41 on Wednesday 7 December 1988. It lasted for 47 seconds. Four minutes later there was a second shock of magnitude 5.4 and within the first fortnight there were 1,500 tremors. Unfortunately most of the hospitals and schools were of modern Soviet construction and so collapsed immediately: urgent medical care for the survivors was difficult, not just because of the collapse of the hospitals but because over half of Gyumri's doctors died in their ruins. All 60 expectant mothers in the maternity hospital died, along with the newborn and their mothers. In one area of nine-storey flats only five or six of the original 49 blocks remained. (Flats similar in design to these are common even today throughout earthquake-prone Armenia.) Out in the villages the older peasant houses sometimes survived but the children had usually been in modern schools and hence died.

The wounded had to be evacuated by helicopter to hospitals in Yerevan and emergency supplies (including large numbers of coffins) had to be flown in. As well as useful items, numerous bureaucrats also arrived with no ability to organise anything but who, imagining themselves to be important people, decided they should be there. Gorbachev himself cut short a visit to the USA to visit the scene, though earned the contempt of the survivors and rescuers by having his Zil limousine brought in by transport plane so that he could inspect the ruins in comfort. Help came from abroad as well as other parts of the Soviet Union - even from Azerbaijan despite the growing tension over Nagorno Karabagh.

Electricity, telephone and water supplies all failed. The absence of electricity and telephones, coupled with the perpetual shortage of batteries (to power radios) in the Soviet Union, meant that people, especially in the villages, had no sources of information and there were many who believed for days that the entire world had been affected. As well as being bereaved, many survivors had lost most of their possessions and were financially ruined. Looting and pillage soon broke out and as a result cars leaving the region were searched by soldiers and the forces of the Ministry of the Interior.

Could the earthquake have been predicted? Probably not, at least so far as the exact date and location were concerned, although after the event some shepherds said that they had noticed changes in the preceding days: specifically that the water in the artesian wells had become several degrees warmer.


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