Over Mount Fuji (6)
Sitting cross-legged on her zabuton like a Buddha, Carol Macleay meditated with her arms and hands in gassho.
Sleep had eluded her since her divorce, and she’d taken herbal remedies and practiced Zen to unwind and calm herself. It was already past midnight and the street noise had faded in her high-rise Hollywood apartment. With soft oriental music in the background, she tried to suppress all other thought.
Breathe in, breathe out; breathe in, breathe out . . .
When such meditation relaxed her, she would even forget her breathing pattern. But ten minutes into a one-hour session, the voice inside her kept coming back calling for her husband. “Simon! Simon!” It was as if it were her original voice. “Simon! Are you there?”
Feeling troubled and finding it hard to continue, she stood up and took a deep breath. She drank a glass of water and sat at her dining table.
Anxious over how her meeting with Simon would turn out, she reflected upon her life with him. At first, his mood swings kept her piqued and interested, and happy years brought them two fine daughters.
By the time her children were in their twenties and married, Simon’s mood worsened, and his unpredictable behavior was diagnosed as Bipolar Disorder. Despite medication, his provocative manner and irritability increased, and Carol ended their marriage.
For seven years, she agonized and worried over her life, her children and later grandchildren, and Simon, until a friend introduced her to Zen and Buddhism. Grateful for the calmness they brought, she felt compelled to share her peace with those suffering from traumatic experiences. After watching victims being pulled out of rubbles in television coverage, she felt a strong passion to be involved. To qualify herself, she received earthquake rescue training and joined the International Rescue Corps. On her first mission, her team arrived in Pakistan after a 7.5 quake.
Since recovering from a broken arm in Nepal three month ago, Carol hadn’t received any new assignments, but with a strange sinking phenomenon in Japan, her enthusiasm had rekindled. Though the international relief operation had welcomed her participation in the archipelago, she wondered why the Japanese Consulate hadn’t approved her visa.
She yawned and focused on her breathing, trying to relax again in bed, but troubling thoughts continued to crush her. Only after taking a skullcap did she manage to fall asleep.
An insidious feeling sweeps over her as a succession of tsunamis a mile high clawing up from the sea to Sunset Boulevard, down the coastline toward San Diego and up to San Francisco. Then, water claws at her, dragging her. She struggles to hang on to the doorway. But more swirling water rushes at her, choking her . . .
Jolted, Carol gasped. Has the state of California blasted into the Pacific? The nightmare was as if Edgar Cayce’s prediction was taking place, slipping the western side of California into the ocean.
Sweat creased her brow; she threw off her blankets, slipped out of bed and opened the window to gulp fresh air.
Still groggy, she blinked. Rumbling day and night, the San Andreas Faultline ran through the seam of two different plates along the west coast. Geologically, a Big One might burst, but local residents remained bravely apathetic to the certainty that their world could be ripped apart.
Calm down. She took a deep breath and stared out, trying to see reality. The image of destruction vanished as her vision cleared; the sparkling lights of the sprawling city replaced the reflection of the clawing waves. Creeping ant-like rays of light turned into crawling vehicles along the streets.
The normal Hollywood landscape reassured her, but her thoughts remained troubled. Like Nostradamus, she had a premonition, but there was no specific prophecy for this region. Only the righteous claimed this City of Fallen Angels was doomed.
In the clear night, blinking lights from aircrafts mingled with twinkling stars. The Santa Ana winds must have cleared the smog from the Los Angeles basin. Thank God for peace and tranquility.
Still perspiring, she put on her robe and shuffled to the kitchen to make a cup of chamomile tea. But the phone rang before she could pick up the kettle. “Hello.”
“A quake has just struck,” George, a co-coordinator from the Rescue Corps, said.
“Where? What magnitude?”
“It’s 7.9 at Rockdale.” George’s voice hesitated. “Call the office for directions.”
Something just like what she’d dreamed, and Rockdale was only thirty miles away. Could this be the Big One?
Carol called her teammates, Jason and Debbie, for re-enforcement. Once dressed and wearing her name tag, she rushed with her pre-packed instrument to her car.
When she reached the suburb at six-thirty, she leaped off her car but the fetid gas and pungent sulfurous odors permeated her. She scrunched her face but chocked. Shit! Time to be strong.
The sight looked familiar—fractured buildings piled among concrete and shattered glass. Amidst sirens, horns, and excited voices, people sobbed or looked dazed as fires raged in the distance.
Covered in debris, rescuers raced about to find trapped survivors or pull bodies from the fallen structures. Cracks rippled along the streets and five cars slipped into a sinkhole three yards ahead.
To her left, half-collapsed multi-story buildings tilted precariously atop heaps of rubble. To her right, some had sunk into the ground and bricks, rafters, and furniture lay strewn everywhere. She chocked again, feeling dust had already gone into her lungs. A bulldozer was already working at a block nearby.
Floodlights illuminated the surrounding where TV crews stationed themselves. Rescue groups brought a plethora of equipment—cranes, generators, cutting tools, seismic monitors and poles attached to long cameras—accompanied by cadaver dogs.
Carol stood between the piles of rubble and gazed over what was once an apartment building. People were screaming, trying to help the injured. A child was wailing at the top of his voice, “Mama! Mama!” No one paid attention to him. The smell of the sewer nauseated her. Just when she was about to go across the damaged street to pick up the wailing child, someone called her from behind. “Carol!” She turned around. Jason and Debbie had just pulled from behind.
After a brief greeting, Carol turned to see if the child was still there, but he was gone. Carol gave specific instructions to each of her colleagues. They started at the Willow Apartments, dug into the rubble, throwing aside bricks and debris, hoping to find more survivors under the shadow of teetering concrete and the mangled structures.
An infant’s wail rose above the surrounding noise, and Carol directed her team to find the baby. Jason and Debbie tore into the rubble with their bare hands. They found the crying newborn, hugged by a woman with streaks of blood on her face. Between mounds of concrete and twisted metal, an air pocket had kept them alive. A pillar fell down. The building was going to collapse on her if she didn’t hurry. Carol removed the loose debris to make a bigger hole, and pulled out the mother and her tiny child, amidst a burst of cheers.
Carol set up a trap locator on the site. The size of a shoebox, the device had acoustic sensors capable of locating sounds and movements, amplifying them a hundred times. With a headset, she pleaded on the loudspeaker for any survivors to make the smallest of movements, or even the slightest of sounds. She knelt lower, concentrating, picking up noises through the headphones. More survivors were pulled from the rubble, but her team dragged out ten corpses for every one rescued through the grueling hours.
Exhausted and covered in dust, the rescuers continued into late afternoon, with the Southern California sun slipping low over the Pacific. Carol looked around with a heavy heart. More than twenty people were rescued, some sustained only minor injuries, others had been critically wounded, their heads or bodies crushed by falling concrete. The death toll escalated to over two hundred.
Carol hastened to the crumpled Vintage complex. Its higher floors tilted at an angle. Cracks marred peach-colored concrete walls. She stepped over the rubble, peered between two cracks and climbed through the opening.
Searching a lounge, Carol stumbled over shattering furniture and glass strewn around. She jerked her head away, covered her mouth so she wouldn’t throw up seeing a long shard of mirror had almost severed a woman’s head, with blood covering her face, arms and hands. Her dead baby lay nearby. The team removed the broken frame and carried the corpses out.
Drawn by strangled gasps, Carol followed the sounds to the next apartment. One man, wheezing, lay pinned under his bed, his shinbone sticking out from the skin. They had to carry him to safety. He wailed when Jason and Debbie tried to stabilize his broken leg.
Carol moved to another apartment, but it was too late. The weight of collapsed floors had killed a man and a woman. Jason and Debbie rushed forward and helped remove their bodies. Where is the weeping coming from?
Carol headed toward the source of the cry. The door was locked, but she used a crowbar to break the door. An elderly woman wheezed for help as blood oozed from her forehead.
“Easy now, what’s your name?” Carol asked, taking her hand. “I’m here to help.”
“I’m Kathy, thank God,” the woman responded. “Bless you.”
They carried her into the parking lot, where an ambulance whisked her and others to a nearby hospital.
Carol and her team hurried to another apartment, only to find a young woman thrashing her arms above her head, grabbing at other survivors.
“My son! Where’s my son?” the woman cried, louder each time, smudging bloody fingerprints wherever she touched.
“We must get you out of here,” Carol said. “We’ll find him,” she added, but immediately felt guilt swirl in her belly. How could she make such a promise?
The woman sobbed. “My hand . . . I can’t feel my hand.” Blood dripped from her fingers. She limped toward the door, with one foot clad in a dirty Nike shoe, the other a mosaic of crushed flesh.
“Calm down,” Carol said, leading her to a parking lot where a triage system had been set up. With supplies from Debbie, she wrapped the woman’s injured hands. “Sit down. We’ll do what we can while we wait for an ambulance.”
Jason spread an emergency blanket over the woman’s trembling shoulders as a paramedic examined her wounds.
The nightmare stretched into the evening.
Please, please . . . Let there be another survivor, one more, Carol prayed. Though exhausted, each time she found a survivor, a new surge of adrenaline recharged her.
A journalist followed her, jabbed a mic into her face. “Carol Macleay! Can you comment?”
Carol shoved past the journalist, eager to tackle another apartment block.
The news crew mingled with fatigued rescuers while heavy machines worked around the wreckage. Using sophisticated rock-cutting tools, more rescuers clawed through mounds of rubble. Others hobbled into a parking lot, aware of the possibility of an aftershock. As the evening fell, a fiery amber hue lit the scene.
A helicopter arrived, bringing with it more seismic listening devices and thermal imaging cameras. Every time a piece of rubble was removed, the cameras scanned for body heat.
Jason and Debbie followed Carol to the Nirvana Complex. There, they searched a hole.
A German shepherd barked and growled over a crack in the pavement.
Carol carefully knocked a chunk of concrete out of the way, making the hole big enough to peer inside. She tied to enlarge the opening, but couldn’t shift any of the remaining slabs.
“Hello.” Carol waved the dust away. “Is anyone there?”
BYRON JERKED AWAKE. Is a dog barking somewhere? His face screwed up into a rictus as pain shot down his spine. What happened? He touched his face and struggled to open his eyes. He tried to blink away his fuzzy vision, but he could hardly see in the dark. Stale air stirred the damp hair on his forehead.
“Hello. Is anyone there?” The voice repeated, echoing around.
In agony, Byron tried to response, but choked on a cloud of dust. Numbness gripped him.
Cinderblocks pinned his legs. He tried to move; his muscles wouldn’t obey as agony overwhelmed him. In a cloud of more swirling dust, he moaned and waited.
Light beams filtered through the debris and shone in his eyes. A faint female voice returned. Someone calling? Amidst the rays, hands dislodged pieces of debris.
He wanted to cry out, but his throat was clogged with dust. The acrid odors of fuel, fumes, even the scent of coffee, filled his nostrils. With stiff fingers, he felt around. Ironwork pressed against his back, and shielded his upper torso.
“I’m here,” he managed a whisper as crushing torture throbbing through his legs.
“Can you move?” the woman’s voice asked.
Byron slipped his arms over a rung and pulled against it. He couldn’t; he was stuck.
Her voice became louder. “Can you move your legs?”
He couldn’t, but managed to lift his head. The dim light showed the dried blood on his hands.
“Just stay there then.” She sounded familiar.
Another rumble. He froze. Still trapped underneath a column, he could only watch the pieces of masonry falling away. One false move and the pile would collapse on him.
Pain returned when his legs were freed. He wanted to turn his body around by grasping pieces of concrete, but couldn’t. Someone held his head, then arms. More noises and voices, then many hands pulled his damp body out of the debris.
“Just breathe,” she said.
He choked on the dust; his stomach clenched and rolled as bile rose in his throat, but he choked it back.
“Is that you, Byron? Are you okay?”
Someone knows me? Surprised to hear his name, he raised his head. Someone knew him! He searched the crowd amidst noises. A familiar woman stood beside him. Like the gathering swell of an ocean wave, his thoughts tumbled from disbelief, to uncertainty, and then to amazement. Aunt Carol!
“Breathe deeply, Byron,” she said. “You’ll be okay.”
Two helpers carried him on a stretcher to an open space. He could feel Carol tying a tourniquet around each of his thighs.
Byron closed his eyes, shutting out the bright lights. His heart beat irregularly and he cringed, trying not to scream. The tourniquets helped to reduce sensation in his legs, but he was still in excruciating pain. Carol monitored his vital signs and loosened the tourniquets at regular intervals.
In the open space, the wails of an ambulance came nearer. He rolled his head higher to the left and noticed a few survivors, some writhing and groaning.
He shifted his head to the right—corpses—each covered with a white cloth. He couldn’t focus. With his head propped up, he tried harder. The label on a placard, which stuck out in the grass nearby, read, ‘Bodies identified.’ ‘Barbara Elliot,’ ‘Charles Lucas.’
Byron blinked in rapid succession, straining, trying to refocus, hoping to see further. His heart thudded as another name shifted through his mind, before darkness overtook him.