On a normal afternoon on 31st May, 1970, a quiet town in Peru suffered what is now the most catastrophic disaster in Peru’s history.
Yungay, a small highland town, was completely wiped out along with all of it’s 25,000 residents, in a matter of minutes.
It happened at around 3:23pm, when most of the locals were watching the world cup game; it was Italy v. Brazil. A devastating earthquake struck, it’s epicentre deep in the Pacific ocean, hitting 8.0 on the Richter scale. The earthquake devastated over a 83,000 mile radius, tearing up homes and roads. It remains one of the worst earthquakes to have ever hit South America.
But what happened in Yungay was even worse.
I was completely heartbroken wandering around the mass-graveyard which is all that remains of the town. Albeit now a peaceful place, scattered with roses and memorials, what happened back on that day in 1970 was hard to stomach.
The earthquake destabilised a glacier sitting high up on the mountains above Yungay. 10 million cubic metres of ice, rock, and snow tore down the mountainside at 120 miles per hour. Just moments later, Yungay and every single inhabitant in that town at the time was buried by the landslide.
The only survivors: Those who raced the steps up to the cemetery which overlooked the town. Ironically, the only safe place to be, and the only place one would survive such devastation below.
We were also told on our visit to Yungay that a circus happened to be open out of town that day, and around 300 children had gone, meaning their lives were spared. But they no longer had homes, or families, for when they returned.
That earthquake claimed 74,000 people that day, and over 25,000 were declared missing, most of those buried beneath that ice and rock of the Yungay avalanche. The near impossible task of retrieving those people was laid to rest, and the entire ground that was once the town of Yungay is now a national cemetery.
It remains a very peaceful place for visitors to remember what stood below, for those children to revisit where their homes once stood, and for the dead to be remembered.
Aside from the few simple memorials, the wild flowers, and the small confectionary stands, there are a few things that remain from the original Yungay:
Four palm trees, which stand out above the metre-deep rubble.
The remains of the church, and the steeple.
A bus, twisted into the ground, which was pushed upwards as the avalanche struck.
The cemetery, still watching over the town as it had back on that day in 1970.
Today the old site of Yungay remains a place to remember those who lost their lives. It is now just a part of the Peruvian highlands. Anyone who didn’t know would never guess that an entire civilisation was below the ground. A new Yungay for survivors was created kilometres away, but the original town will never be forgotten.
Yungay was one of the most poignant places I have ever visited. I will always think of those people who lost everything on that afternoon in May, 1970 during the Yungay avalanche.