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Suddenly: The Night of the Earthquake

December 7, 2018, marks 30 years since the 1988 earthquake struck Armenia. The excerpt here, from The Torch Was Passed (1998), recounts how the news broke to the Armenian-American community, and how the world replied in the immediate aftermath.

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Reports of a massacre of Armenians in Azerbaijan had surfaced in late 1988, and the community was preparing for a huge rally, to which the primate, Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, had invited Armenian bishops and dignitaries from America and abroad. The centerpiece of the event would be a candlelight vigil on the plaza of the St. Vartan Cathedral, on the evening of December 7.

The timing was ideal: Mikhail Gorbachev was in the middle of a triumphant diplomatic tour of the United States, and was actually visiting New York City at the time. On the appointed day, an open letter from America’s Armenian community was sent to Gorbachev, and a companion ad in The New York Times asked, “Can Glasnost Live if Justice Dies in Artzakh (Karabagh)?”

As the sun set, the candles were lit on the cathedral plaza, in anticipation of the seven o’clock start of the vigil. But the services were only just getting underway when the primate turned to the crowd, white-faced and drawn, to deliver the shattering news.

Armenia had been struck by a monumental earthquake.

Suddenly

At eleven forty-five a.m. on December 7, 1988, the first of three hundred tremors struck the northwestern region of Armenia. The epicenter at Spitak leveled the town of 35,000 citizens, and affected over 140 neighboring villages, of which nearly fifty were totally destroyed. Soviet officials called it the worst disaster in the region in modern history. Gorbachev was forced to cut short his American visit to address the crisis.

When word of the disaster first reached America, the need for a rapid response was paramount. On December 8, Archbishop Manoogian led the visiting delegation of Armenian bishops to a meeting at the Soviet Mission. The scheduled topics of discussion were to be the issue of Karabagh and the plight of the Armenian refugees. But now another item was added: the provision of emergency aid to the earthquake region.

Officials assured the delegation that assistance extended through the Church to the victims of the earthquake would be accommodated by Soviet diplomatic channels. On the following afternoon, representatives of various Armenian religious, charitable, cultural, fraternal and political organizations convened at the Diocesan Center in New York to discuss ways of dealing with the emergency in Armenia. The Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Yuri Dubrinin, had met with the primate earlier in the day, to present a list of urgently needed medical supplies, along with his country’s condolences.

In the weeks that followed, the entire world was moved to render help in the tragedy. The Diocesan Center was inundated with messages of concern from religious and civic leaders. Catholic Relief Services and the National Council of the Churches offered their assistance, as did John Cardinal O’Connor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, Metropolitan Theodosius of the Orthodox Church in America, Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum of the American Jewish Committee, and other religious leaders. Bernard Cardinal Law of the Archdiocese of Boston sent over $500,000 to the diocese.

New York senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Alfonse D’Amato and Congressman Bill Green all offered their help. Mayor Koch held a press conference with the primate at City Hall and appealed to the people of New York to assist in any way possible. The plight of the earthquake victims evoked a touching outpouring of generosity from people and organizations all over the country.

One letter, sent by school children from P.S. 309 in Brooklyn, New York, contained $35 and a handwritten message:

Dear People of Armenia: We send you our prayers and sympathy for your terrible tragedy. We want you to know that we care and are thinking about you during your time of sorrow.

(Continued here.)

Above adapted from The Torch Was Passed: The Centennial History of the Armenian Church in America, by Christopher H. Zakian (St. Vartan Press, 1998), available through the St. Vartan Bookstore.

Pictured above: Photos from New York’s St. Vartan Cathedral on Dec. 7, 1988. A large crowd had gathered in support of the Armenians in Karabagh, when Abp. Torkom Manoogian announced the news of the earthquake.

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