Chile’s tsunami: a victim and his ghost
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.