Twenty Years After – Recollections

Twenty years have elapsed since the Spitak-88 earthquake of December 7, 1988 in Armenia. Every one of us present at the disaster region in the days that followed will have memories of experiences that haunt us, remembering the human’suffering, and at the same time uplift us as we think of the devotion of people who were there to ameliorate the sufferings of the survivors.

The earthquake occurred at a time when Armenia was in turmoil because of the Karabagh independence movement, and many workers were on strike. In hindsight, it is remarkable that the country’s administration did not collapse. The cooperation between the local workers and the visiting teams was remarkable. Saving lives was the highest priority, but our responsibility was to perform scientific and engineering investigations of the cause and impact of the earthquake. We carried on, a team of American scientists and engineers, sent by the US National Science Foundation, to work in cooperation with our Armenian and Russian counterparts. Armen der Kiureghian, Professor at UC Berkeley, and I were the two Armenian engineers in the American team. We were in Armenia during December 11 to 18. There were many other volunteer groups, especially from the medical profession, who were there for rescue and recovery missions.

For me, the suffering of the people took control of my feelings more than my dedication to science, and I told a colleague of mine to take charge of the investigation that I had been asked to chair. I remember that my thoughts during our investigations were centered more on the survivors than the technical aspects of the disaster. Walking past a completely destroyed multistory apartment building, I noticed two grandmothers who had built a fire and were boiling water in a pot. They insisted that we share with them the tea that they had prepared. One of them said that we must be tired and we needed to drink the tea that they were offering. They had lost their entire belongings and some of their family members but they had kept their Armenian hospitality.

In the ruins of a school, a branch of the Yerevan Polytechnic, I was told that a completely destroyed building had been the library and that more than 300 students and faculty were killed on the campus. I picked up a book covered with dirt, in Russian, and read its title, “Resistance of Materials”, an ironic reminder of what the architects and engineers were being taught on the safe application of construction materials. I keep that book in my library as a reminder of the tragedy because we know that the earthquake disaster was as much the fault of human beings as the fault of nature.

As I write now I am reminded of the title of the novel of the French writer, Alexander Dumas, called “Twenty Years After” when Dumas brought together his Musketeers for a renewed dedication to their mission. His Musketeers came out of retirement and were again the heroes of Dumas’ imagination. As I look back twenty years, I note that the Armenian engineers, scientists and health specialists of the time did not retire but they continued their work for safe structures and minimum casualties during future earthquakes. The seismic engineers named the earthquake “the Spitak-88 earthquake”, and for a number of years they focused their attention on the cause and effects of this tragic event in Armenia. Our own investigations culminated in presentations at the International Seminar on Spitak-88 in Yerevan, in May, 1989, that was sponsored by UNESCO. I consider a coincidence that the plenary sessions were held in the auditorium of the building that is now the American University of Armenia.

During the UNESCO Symposium, attended by 160 scientists and engineers, 56 papers were presented and discussions were held on the prevention of similar disasters. The statistics were awesome. It was reported that the earthquake affected a population of 700,000 people in Northern Armenia. The initial official estimate of fatalities was 55,000, later revised to 25,000 based on the count of 24,944 bodies removed from the rubble. The earthquake left 514,000 homeless, 31,000 injured and 14,832 victims extricated from the destroyed buildings. Over 21,000 residences were destroyed, as well as 83 schools, 88 kindergartens, 84 hospitals and hundreds of stores and public buildings. The lessons learned were not surprising, neither to the Armenian experts nor to the visitors. In my presentation I summarized my conclusions stating that the prescribed seismic intensity zoning by the local building code was low, the design details did not demonstrate the required ductility in the structures, certain sites had significant ground motion amplification or possible resonance between soil and structure, and the quality of construction was poor. I remember that the Armenian engineers were accepting the first three conclusions and they said they were themselves appalled by the low quality of construction blaming it on the corrupt practice of builders.

The Central Ministerial Committee of Armenia under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Fadey Sarkisian was in session discussing the situation of the refugees from Karabagh and Azerbaijan (there were 160,000 persons in Armenia at the time) when the news reached them that there was an earthquake in Northern Armenia. Prime Minister Sarkisian describes in his Memoir, Lessons of Life, the developmen’s following the news. He first called the Medzamor Nuclear Power Station and learned that it was still in operation and then called the regions for a report. At the same time, he received a call from the Soviet Prime Minister, Nikolay Ryzhkov, inquiring about the severity of the earthquake and the magnitude of the disaster. Mr. Ryzhkov decided immediately to fly to Yerevan to inspect the conditions first hand. Fadey Sarkisian has praises for Ryzhkov, especially for his human character. He said he was weeping as he inspected the damage and heard the pleas of the people who were digging through the rubble for survivors. He kept hearing, “we need cran’s” to lift the heavy concrete slabs. Here is what Fadey Sarkisian writes in his Memoir quoting Ryzhkov: “Walking in the city was painful. We could hear the people buried alive under the destroyed structures. The surviving persons were in vain trying to lift the heavy slabs to save their loved ones. It is so terrible being helpless in these circumstances. I had lost all hope. I was helpless as the Prime Minister of a suffering country and for not being a wizard with Aladdin’s lamp under my arm. I was crying as I walked without embarrassment for my tears”. Much has been written about Mikhail Gorbachev’s trip to Armenia from New York immediately after the earthquake, but Fadey Sarkisian’s appraisal of Nikolai Ryzhkov’s human feelings on the soil of Armenia was indeed shared by the Armenian population.

Immediate assistance arrived from every where, the Soviet government having opened all borders to Armenia. The first to arrive were the Georgians. Then came the Yugoslavs, and others with medical personnel and supplies soon followed. We arrived later having reached Armenia on December 11 in a freight plane carrying Red Cross assistance.

Rumors were circulating that the disaster was not due to an earthquake but to a nuclear bomb that the Russia’s detonated underground. In fact, the day after the earthquake soon after I was interviewed by NBC in Los Angeles and had just returned home, I received a telephone call from an Armenian lady who blurted out that I was all wrong, and that it was a Russian bomb and not an earthquake. When I was in Armenia in November, 2008, twenty years later, I was asked the same question. This had come up so many times in the intervening years that I had taken the only reliable seismic wave record (the Gukasian record) to my friend, Professor Bruce Bolt of UC Berkeley, a world renowned seismologist whose expertise was in the science of distinguishing between earthquake and nuclear weapons detonation records, and whose book entitled “ Nuclear Explosions and Earthquakes: the Parted Veil” was written to detect the differences between the seismic waves of earthquakes caused by nature and underground nuclear tests. He assured me that it was very clear that the Spitak-88 event was an earthquake record. Remote records in other countries had also proven that there was no basis for the rumors that the earth shook because of a nuclear detonation on December 7, 1988 at 11:41 AM.

Many severe earthquakes have occurred in different parts of the world since December, 1988, the latest being the Magnitude 8.0 Sichuan earthquake in Wenchuan County, China, that occurred on May 12, 2008 (69,000 killed). Prior to this earthquake, the Spitak earthquake (Magnitude 6.9) was considered the second largest in terms of damage to humans and infrastructure after the Magnitude 7.8 Tangshan earthquake of July 28, 1976 (242,000 killed). Casualties in Sichuan (2008) and Tangshan (1976), both in China, were much higher than the Spitak earthquake, but considering the population base of Armenia as compared to China, the impact of the Spitak earthquake was exceptionally severe.

It is to be noted that the January 17, 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake was also about Magnitude 6.9, same strength as the Spitak earthquake, but the damage was limited to parking structures, an apartment complex and freeways, and the casualty numbers were 72 persons killed and 9000 injured. It is not fair to blame the Armenians for the extensive damage and praise the Californians for limited damage resulting from similar Magnitude earthquakes, but lessons can be learned. Significant steps have been taken since the Spitak-88 earthquake by scientists, engineers and builders to limit the damaging effect of earthquakes. Mapping of potential areas of earthquake occurrence, definition of geological conditions, seismological studies of characteristics of wave propagation, advanced criteria for the design of structures, more refined analysis of the response of structures, design details that resist collapse, and techniques such as base isolation that control the relative movement of ground and building are techniques that are now available to Armenian scientists and engineers just as they are to American scientists and engineers. Earthquakes cannot be prevented from occurring but their damage can be controlled.


Editor’s Note: Mihran Agbabian is Professor Emeritus of Engineering at USC


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