Three days before
Christmas, holiday revelers strolled along the narrow streets of Managua's old
city late into the night. Colored lights festooned the shops along Avenida
Central and glowed from the pyramid-shaped hotel up on the hill. For days it
had been hot and oddly still, but just after midnight, in the first minutes of
Dec. 23, 1972, a sudden wind blew in, cold and strong. The animals sensed
something. So did Pedro Chamorro, editor of the opposition newspaper La Prensa.
The leaves rustled as if in warning, Chamorro thought. Then came the first
tremor, and the earth shuddered. Soon there was a second rumble, as if some
gargantuan creature were bursting to the surface from deep underground. Later
came a third quake, more violent than the second, and in a thunderous spasm the
city collapsed. Three hundred fifty square blocks were flattened, with pipes
erupting, fires flashing, soot and debris choking the air, people running,
screaming, ripping off their burning clothes. The clock atop the Cathedral of
the Immaculate Conception stopped at 12:27 a.m.
strongman, Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was at his sprawling ranch house on a
hill above town with his wife and three of their five children. The second and
third tremors bounced them around so much, Somoza later said, that "we
thought we were pieces of ice in a cocktail shaker." When the rumbling
ended, Somoza climbed into a car and began working the radio, contacting police
and the headquarters of the National Guard, Nicaragua's army. He learned that
the Guard building downtown had been destroyed, with massive casualties, and
the national communications center, in the presidential palace, had been
knocked out. He set up emergency headquarters at his ranch house, which had
suffered only minor damage. Somoza was not Nicaragua's president, but he ran
the country from his position as commander of the armed forces. Now, with the
earthquake crisis, he dropped all pretense and seized full control.
Roberto and Vera
Clemente, at their house in Puerto Rico, awoke on Dec. 23 to news of the deadly
temblors. To them this was not some distant tragedy. What had happened to the
many people Roberto had met during his more than three weeks in Nicaragua? And
the boy at the hospital waiting for artificial legs so he could be Puerto
Rico's batboy next year?
Clemente found a
ham radio operator who was picking up detailed reports of the earthquake from a
Managuan identifying himself as Enrique. Two of the city's three major
hospitals had been destroyed, along with the presidential palace, the U.S.
Embassy and two of the three major hotels. The main fire station had collapsed.
"People run through the streets like zombies, with terror," Enrique
reported over his mobile radio. "We have never seen a catastrophe like
What did people
need, Clemente asked. Everything, was the answer: food, clothing, medical
supplies. The disaster relief effort was already under way. A 46-man medical
team had been loaded into a mammoth C-130 at the U.S. Southern Command in the
Panama Canal Zone and was on its way to Managua before noon the next day. Red
Cross and other volunteer groups were traveling to the fallen capital from the
U.S., Mexico, South America and Europe.
On that first
long day of the Managua disaster, the attention of President Richard Nixon and
of millions of sports fans around the U.S. was focused on something else: the
first round of the NFL playoffs. Interest was especially intense in Pittsburgh,
where the Steelers were hosting the Oakland Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium.
After calling his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, in Washington,
D.C., Nixon settled in to watch the game in his vacation house in Key Biscayne,
Fla. With little more than a minute remaining, Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler
ran 30 yards for a score to put the Raiders ahead 7-6. Then, with Pittsburgh's
last gasp, came one of the most memorable plays in NFL history.
ball on the Steelers' 40. Twenty-two seconds left. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw
called the play 66 Option and fired the ball downfield. The pass was intended
for halfback Frenchy Fuqua, but Oakland safety Jack Tatum arrived with a wallop
just as the ball got there, and it flew back several yards and was snatched at
ankle level by Steelers rookie running back Franco Harris, who swept across the
field and down the sideline for the winning score. Harris's miraculous catch,
soon christened the Immaculate Reception, was the talk of western Pennsylvania.
The disaster surrounding the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Managua
seemed far, far away.
That night the
Clementes went to a hotel for a banquet at which he was to receive an award.
Ruth Fern�ndez, a singer and political activist who had just been elected to
Puerto Rico's Senate, was there, along with Luis Vigoraux, a local television
personality. Vigoraux suggested that as well-known figures in the community
they should take prominent roles in the relief effort. What came to be called
the Comit� Roberto Clemente Pro- Nicaragua was born.
The next morning,
Christmas Eve, Nixon called Somoza. Nixon was worried that chaos in Nicaragua
might lead to civil disturbances and possibly a Communist uprising. Along with
medical teams and army engineers, Nixon dispatched a battalion of paratroopers
to help keep order in Managua.
In San Juan that
day Clemente and Fern�ndez made a plea for assistance on television and
announced that the parking lot of Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the ballpark of the
San Juan and Santurce winter league teams, would be used to collect aid
throughout Christmas Day. By then Clemente had a direct ham radio connection to
a hospital in Masaya, 13 miles from Managua, and learned of its need for
medicine and X-ray equipment. Refugees from the capital had nearly doubled the
population of Masaya, to more than 60,000. Conditions there were dire. Clemente
decided to lease a plane to get supplies to Nicaragua faster.