Chile’s tsunami: a victim and his ghost

March 18, 2011

“I made the wrong decision,” was the first thing Emilio Gutierrez told me the first time we met. That was the day I took a photograph of him carrying his dog, just two days after the tsunami. I didn’t get to know him well enough then to even learn his name.

A combination photo shows Emilio Gutierrez, who lost his father and son during a tsunami brought by the February 2010 earthquake, (top) carrying his son's dog after rescuing it from the ruins of his home in Constitucion, March 10, 2010, and (bottom) holding his 2-month-old baby, Emilia, at his home in Putu town, near Constitucion February 25, 2011. Gutierrez continues to search for 4-year-old Jose who disappeared in a huge wave spawned by the tsunami last year. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Minutes after the earthquake in his hometown of Constitucion on February 27, 2010, Emilio made the decision to escape the looming waves with his family by boat upriver, away from the river’s mouth. In the dark of night and the panic of the moment his father and son, Emilito Jose, were the first to climb into the boat. But before the rest of the family could follow them the mooring ropes snapped and they were dragged away by the current.

Emilio trusted his father’s experience and was sure that they would be fine. Together with his mother and wife, Sofia, he climbed into their other boat and headed upriver. “The noise was like helicopters hovering above us.” That was the noise of the advancing first wave as it destroyed everything in its path.

Emilio Gutierrez (R) and his wife Sofia Monsalves stand with their baby daughter Emilia in front of a drawing that Emilio did of the boat in which they escaped the tsunami caused by the 2010 earthquake, in their home in Constitucion February 25, 2011. Their son Emilito Jose went missing in the disaster and was never found. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

The boat overturned and they found themselves in the water, swimming through pieces of wood and giving it all they could to reach the bank. “Mom begged me to leave her in the river. She couldn’t swim anymore and just wanted to rest. I thought about leaving her to help Sofia, but I thought, she is young and Mom is old. I began thinking, if I had to choose between saving Sofia or Emilito Jose I would save him.” As we talked, a year after the disaster, next to us Sofia lowered her head in silence.

Sofia Monsalves shows a dress-up costume belonging to her son, Emilito Jose, who went missing after a tsunami caused by the February 2010 quake, in Constitucion February 25, 2011.REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Emilio managed to help both his mother and his wife out of the river, and began searching for his father and son, trusting in their safety. He roamed about with only a vague idea of the level of destruction around them. Emilio’s life was changed forever.

“I feel responsible. I made the decision to escape that way.” Emilio spoke with the voice of guilt. His father and son lost their lives in the waves of the tsunami, the boat destroyed. The following day Emilio found his father’s body and hugged it tightly. “Where is Emilito, Dad!?” The answer was cold silence.

A photograph of Emilito Jose (L) in the lap of his grandfather hangs in the home of his parents, in Constitucion February 25, 2011. Both were killed as they tried to escape the tsunami caused by the February 2010 earthquake. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

The river is the family’s sustenance. For decades they have transported passengers in their two boats. Now the river keeps the body of the small boy, leaving Emilio even more tethered to its waters.

Sofia Monsalves sits with her baby daughter Emilia in front of the Maule River where they lost their son Emilito Jose in the tsunami caused by the 2010 earthquake, in Constitucion February 25, 2011. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

“I feel it in here, a pain that never ends,” he said with his hands on his chest.

Now, on the bank of the Maule River, Emilio compulsively builds a small dock for his new boat. He works tirelessly to finish it. Like a bridge to nowhere, the dock is an invitation to ungrudgingly face its waters, and a constant reminder of the unforgettable.

Emilio Gutierrez builds a jetty on the bank of the Maule River, where he lost his son and father during a tsunami brought by the February 2010 earthquake, Constitucion February 25, 2011.REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Today Emilio and Sofia have a new daughter, Emilia. He fondly observed the two-month-old. “Sometimes I feel guilty for experiencing joy.”

The “man with the dog” that I photographed soon after the tsunami no longer exists. That out-of-focus person roaming Constitucion like a specter, died with his loved ones.

“I will rest only the day I die,” he says. That’s the ghost of Emilio talking.

A boat model is seen on a memorial built to commemorate Emilito Jose, a young victim of last year's earthquake and tsunami in Constitucion February 25, 2011. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

“I made the wrong decision,” was the first thing Emilio Gutierrez told me when we met the first time. That was the day I took a photograph of him carrying his dog, just two days after the tsunami. I didn’t know him well enough then to even learn his name.

In his hometown of Constitucion on February 27, 2010, minutes after the earthquake, Emilio made the decision to escape the looming waves by boat upriver together with his family. In the dark of night and the panic of the moment his father and son were the first to climb into the boat. But before the rest of the family could follow them the mooring ropes snapped and they were dragged away by the current.

Emilio, who trusted his father’s experience, was sure that they would be fine and see them again soon. Together with his mother and wife he climbed into their other boat and headed upriver. “The noise was like helicopters hovering above us.” That was the noise of the advancing first wave as it destroyed everything in its path.

The boat overturned and they found themselves in the water, swimming through pieces of wood and giving it all they could to reach the bank. “Mom begged me to leave her in the river. She couldn’t swim more and just wanted to rest. I thought about leaving her to help [my wife] Sofia, but I thought, she is young and Mom is old. I began thinking, if I had to choose between saving Sofia or [my son] Emilito I would save him.” As we talked, next to us Sofia lowered her head in silence.

Emilio managed to help both his mother and his wife out of the river, and began searching for his father and son, confiding in their reunion. He headed home with only a vague idea of the level of destruction around them. Emilio’s life was changed forever.

“I feel to blame. I made the decision to escape that way.” Emilio speaks with the voice of guilt. His father and son lost their lives in the waves of the tsunami, the boat destroyed. The following day Emilio found his father’s body and hugged it tightly. “Where is Emilito, Dad!?” The answer was cold silence.

The river is the family’s sustenance. For decades they have transported passengers in their two boats. Now the river keeps the body of the small boy, leaving Emilio even more tethered to its waters.

“I feel it in here, a pain that never ends,” he said with his hands on his chest.

On the bank of the Maule River now, Emilio compulsively builds a small dock for his new boat. He works tirelessly to finish it. Like a bridge to nowhere the dock is a route to where Emilito’s body is. I think of it as an invitation to ungrudgingly face its waters, and a constant reminder of the unforgettable.

Today Emilio and Sofia have a new daughter, Emilia. He fondly observes the two-month-old. “Sometimes I feel guilty for experiencing joy.”

The “man with the dog” that I photographed soon after the tsunami no longer exists. The out-of-focus person roaming Constitucion like a specter spoke for him. That day I met the part of Emilio that died with his loved ones.

“I will rest only the day I die,” he says. That’s the ghost of Emilio talking.

3 comments

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Ivan,
You’re compassion in story telling shines brightly through both your images and words. Thank you for allowing Emilio a voice.

Posted by CorinnePerkins | Report as abusive

Gracias Ivan !! Muy fuerte muy humano,thank you very much for sharing your experience with all. besos artist, mariana bazo

Posted by marianab | Report as abusive

Congratulation my friend, seemed to be living it while reading. Nice lines, wonderfull pics, great job sir. Billy Farm

Posted by granjapix | Report as abusive