Shaken to Our Core
(The following is an excerpt from our new book, A Couple of Miracles: One Couple, More Than a Few Miracles)
Shortly after 5 pm on October 17, 1989, I went into the bathroom where Joyce was in the bathtub with our five-month-old son, John-Nuriel. I started the after-bath ritual by spreading a towel on the floor next to the bathtub. Joyce handed me our precious little dripping bundle and I laid him on the towel. At 5:04pm, as I was reaching for the corners of the towel to dry our baby, the house began rocking violently.
In those first few seconds in our little rented Santa Cruz house, it felt much like the other rolling earth waves we had experienced. But this one got worse by the second! The house lurched with a deafening roar. I glanced out the bathroom window and saw to my horror that the trees seemed to be moving to the left. Then I realized that the trees were not moving … the house was moving to the right. Built on the topside of a ridge, the house was clearly beginning to slide downhill. I had the awful image in my mind of riding an out-of-control house down a steep hill while it crashed into trees and broke apart.
Joyce suddenly screamed from the bathtub, “Barry, pick up the baby!”
I bent down to grab our son, but the bouncing of the house threw me against the sink. I desperately tried again to reach for John-Nuri, but this time was nearly thrown into the bathtub with Joyce. Half the water in the tub poured over our infant son, while he helplessly screamed and sputtered on his water-logged towel.
Past where our baby lay, the toilet lifted into the air as if some malevolent spirit was pushing from below, and the broken pipe sent water splashing off the ceiling and walls. Between the moving, bouncing, and breaking apart of our house, and the splashing of the water everywhere, the sounds were deafening! It was like the growling of some hidden monster below our house.
After an eternity that turned out to be somewhere between fifteen and twenty seconds, all became eerily still, except for the barking of many frightened dogs echoing across the valley below us.
I quickly picked up a thoroughly soaked and crying John-Nuri, and tried my best to comfort him. With the power out and the water lines pulled apart, the pump stopped and so did the splashing.
Our ordeal had only just begun. There was a new sound, scarier than any other. Just outside the open bathroom window, the gas line from our newly-filled, 250-gallon propane tank was sheared off by the moving house. The tank’s unobstructed outlet valve was aimed straight for our open bathroom window. With a roaring whoosh, a thick white cloud of propane gas was pouring in through the window. Our naked bodies were being coated with propane as the bathroom filled with gas. I was aware that the tiniest spark could set off a blazing inferno in that tiny space.
I knew I needed to turn off the valve at the tank, but first I had to close the bathroom window. I ran to the window, and quickly discovered that it would be impossible to close it. The frame was bent, and the window wouldn’t budge.
It was definitely time to leave the bathroom! Still holding our baby, I yelled, “Joyce, quick, we gotta get out of here now.”
I turned toward the bathroom door, but debris from the cupboards and the cupboard doors themselves blocked our exit. I handed John-Nuri back to Joyce in the bathtub and fought my way through the clutter to the door.
I pulled on the doorknob. Nothing! The door was stuck solid. We were trapped in a bathroom filling with propane gas, with its peculiar, skunk-like smell. I knew we didn’t have long before we would succumb to the effects of breathing the toxic fumes….
I attacked the wedged door with a vengeance, knowing with certainty that we had only minutes before we would all pass out from breathing the propane gas pouring in through the broken window. We were NOT going to die in that bathroom!
Finally, with superhuman effort, I managed to pull the door free and the three of us made our way over the crazily uneven floor to the living room. In the living room, we met up with 13-year-old Rami and 8-year-old Mira, their faces white with fright. They had been in the kitchen, which was the worst mess in the whole house. Rami’s legs were bleeding from half a dozen small cuts from flying pieces of glass. Blood was dripping from a thankfully small cut on Mira’s head, where she’d been hit by a falling plate. It was like a bomb exploded in the kitchen, and our girls had been hit by shrapnel.
Our family reunited, we made our way over loose bricks that had exploded out of the fireplace into the living room, and through thick clouds of dust that were still settling. I’ll never forget the smell of destruction, of broken concrete and torn apart wood. I noticed that the floor and ceiling were separated from the walls, but it wasn’t until we got to the front door that we realized the full extent of damage to the house. It was then we knew with shocking certainty that we would never live in this house again.
Outside the open front door, where a concrete porch used to be, was now a chasm. We had to jump across this chasm to our porch. I went first, then held out my hand to grab each member of the family as they jumped. From the porch we could see that the house was five feet off the crumbled foundation, leaning precariously. By the grace of God, the roof had not caved in upon us all.
We helped each other out to the dirt road to view what had once been our home. The house and almost everything in it at that moment appeared totally destroyed. Rami started screaming. John-Nuriel was still coughing and choking on the bathtub water. Mira cried and asked, “Are we in the heaven world now?” And I imagine that, to a child, it could have easily looked like the end of the world.
I suddenly threw up my hands in ecstasy, shouting, “We’re alive! We’re alive!” We stood in a circle, thanking God and shouting, “We’re alive!” We kept hugging each other with the deepest sense of appreciation.
In that moment, as we stood naked on our dirt road, not knowing if we could recover anything of our material world, we were made aware of what is most important in life. Our home and possessions had been taken from us in twenty seconds, but we had each other. Standing among ruins, we found we had gratitude and appreciation for the most important things of all — our lives and one another.