Earthquake survivors: the Gartner’s story

29 May


Jeanette and Don Gartner during a 2005 visit to our home. They survived a 7.1 magnitude earthquake near their home on the island of Roatan, located in the Caribbean Ocean north of Honduras.



Jeanette and Don Gartner during a 2005 visit to our home. They survived a 7.1 magnitude earthquake near their retirement home on the island of Roatan, located in the Caribbean Ocean north of Honduras.



What’s it like to experience an earthquake — a giant one — and survive? My cousin Don Gartner and his wife Jeanette can answer that question.


Don, a first cousin of famed Iowa newspaperman and Iowa Board of Regents member Michael Gartner, is a retired Boeing engineer. Jeanette is a retired physical therapist. They have a home in the States, where they spend about half of their time each year. They spend the other half — January through June this year — in a cozy hillside home they built several years ago overlooking the Caribbean on Roatan, an island popular with tourists, just north of Honduras.

But their home in paradise shook violently early last Thursday morning (May 28) as the area experienced its first earthquake in nearly 10 years.

Don and Jeanette were awakened a little before 2:30 that day by the 7.1 magnitude quake whose epicenter was less than 30 miles from them.

I first learned of the quake that morning when I checked my e-mail. An e-mail from Jeanette had an attention-getting subject: earthquake survivors. It told the couple’s friends and relatives they’d experienced a large quake and were unhurt.

I found out in more detail what they had gone through when I read Jeanette’s blog (, “The View from La Puerta Trasera: The adventures of living on Roatan.”

“It was incredible,” writes Jeanette of the tremor. Just prior to the quake’s start, she had awakened from a deep sleep, she recounts, “perhaps sensing something.”

She lay awake for a moment, listening, but heard nothing out of the ordinary. After using the bathroom, she “snuggled back down into bed when suddenly the quake hit, shaking us like nothing we’ve ever experienced.

“The bed was shaking and moving, the floor was moving, everything was rattling and bouncing and we were terrified. The power went out immediately. Total darkness. Once we realized that it was an earthquake, Don said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’ We scrambled around, Don found his keys to our gate and we ran out and up onto the road.”

Jeanette writes in her blog that she and Don “could hear people off in the distance, down the hill, down on the beach, all hollering and crying out, some quite hysterical. Soon we saw car headlights, people leaving beachfront homes, heading for higher ground, fearful of a tsunami.”

A tsunami alert was, in fact, issued for Central America’s Caribbean coast after the quake but was soon cancelled.

“That never even crossed our minds, never having experienced an earthquake while also on an island, but Don said later that we were too close to the epicenter to have any tsunami effect here. We didn’t know how close (the quake) was, but it sure felt like it was right under our house. In fact, it was 27 miles away — close enough.”

Jeanette writes that some friends, Dennis and Merlin, called them to see if they were OK.

“We were, and so were they. We heard our neighbors, Chuck and Tia, driving down to their church and missionary inn near the beach, checking on people and bringing some of them back up to their house on the hill above us. Dennis and Merlin’s kids, who live down the hill from us, came up the hill, also fearing a tsunami. Lots of people were sitting outside, talking and waiting to see if it was all over.”

There wasn’t much sleep for anyone on Roatan after that.

“The sky was completely clear,” notes Jeanette in her account. “I’ve never seen so many stars before, including the Milky Way, which we seldom can see in our urban home in the States.”

She checked a hummingbird’s nest she’s been keeping an eye on to make sure the babies hadn’t been thrown out, and they had not.

“We found our oil lamp, lit it and went around the house, checking for damage. My lamp and a glass of water had tumbled off my bedside table. A couple of pictures fell off a wall and table. The fire extinguisher fell over (and thankfully didn’t discharge all over). Nothing fell out of cabinets or off shelves. Amazing. A few cans fell over inside the cabinets but nothing broke.”

Many along the northern coast of Honduras were not as fortunate, mainly because of flimsy construction, according to news reports. Several people were killed and scores of people hurt when some 60 houses collapsed. Many buildings received minor damage. But it could have been a lot worse.

Jeanette reports their house did not appear to have sustained any structural damage, and their power came back on about three hours after the quake, which really surprised them.

The Gartner’s friend Dennis said he had been getting phone calls Thursday morning from people in Canada and the States, and the shaker was already worldwide news.

“(So) I immediately sent out e-mails saying we were OK, then called my parents, fearing that my dad would have heard and been worried. My dad doesn’t do e-mail, and I knew my mother would still be sleeping. Thankfully, my cell phone worked, and I was able to let them know we were fine.”

Like others who have come through a variety of natural disasters in one piece, the Gartners have paused to reflect on happened. And how the outcome could have been a lot different.

“We are feeling very blessed today…,” Jeanette’s blog concludes.

Added note: Jeanette tells me in a June 4 e-mail they’ve had 300 aftershocks since the original quake. Wow!

Copyright 2009 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

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Posted by on May 29, 2009 in Uncategorized


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