Something is wrong, but I don’t know what it is. I feel as if a violent storm or some other calamity is imminent. The sea gulls seem to share my apprehension. Hundreds of them have suddenly begun flying out to sea since this morning. I have never seen gulls do that before. Our ship, the U.S.S. Wateree, reached the harbor of Arica Chile yesterday. The Wateree launched in 1863, just a few short years ago. Boasting a flat bottom hull made entirely of iron, she is one of the newest warship innovations of the Navy.
The people of Arica take little notice of our ship though. The city is distracted as usual with Chilean vendors selling their fresh fish and shimmering jewelry in the crowded streets. Our cargo for the American base is already unloaded. Commander Billings has ordered most of the crew back on board to get ready for our return to San Francisco. It’s five o’clock and almost time for dinner at last!
What’s this? My friend, Midshipman Dawson, is launching a dinghy.
“Ahoy Dawson! Where are you going? Who authorized your use of that?” I chide.
Dawson replies, “It’s nothing for you to worry about Cavanaugh! We’re picking up some extra supplies in town. We’ll be back in an hour. Don’t worry your self.”
“Oh, I see. You just want another excuse to go back in to town and purchase that dress for your lovely wife. Well, maybe I’ll just tell the Commander what you’re up to and..”
I suddenly hear a strange low GRRRUMMMMM. The ship’s deck begins to vibrate beneath my feet. Every crewman on board has stopped. Dawson has ceased his efforts as well.
“What is it?” he calls up to me.
“Not..NOT SURE!” I shout.
The deep GGRUMMM has quickly become a continuous groaning in the air like a thousand large rocks rolling down a hillside all around me. My eyes pan towards the city. A CRRASSHH resounds against the ship. RIIIP! BOOM!
“Look! The warehouse!” exclaims Dawson.
The three-story building directly in front of our ship crumbles to the ground. The Wateree is just far enough away to miss the debris as it smashes on to the dock.
“It’s a..a..quake. The crew!” Dawson points.
I see five of our men on a nearby dinghy struggling to row to our starboard side. The water has suddenly become like a mad boiling soup with sailor-high waves frothing in every direction.
“Quickly, Dawson,” I yell, “Get back on board.”
“Not without them,” he says.
Dawson braves the insane churning water in his dinghy like a man bouncing about on a trampoline. He manages to grab a line from the other boat.
“Dawson, we’ll bring you and the others up on board,” I say.
“Hurry! The water is pulling us out!” another sailor cries.
Indeed, the water in the harbor is flowing out to sea as if some great drain has opened somewhere and is swallowing it up. CRRAACK! CRRRASSH! The shaking ground knocks the whole pier next to the Wateree into the harbor. CLAANNG! BAANNG! Two heavy iron moorings on shore barely miss smashing Dawson’s boat as they tumble off the collapsing dock. Dawson and the others frantically climb aboard. Water has receded so much now from the harbor that we can actually see the bottom. I look further out. In amazement, I spot large fish flopping about the freshly bared mud.
The water has receded out to sea beyond sight. Several other ships anchored in the harbor with bowed keels have toppled over on to their sides. In contrast, the Wateree’s flat bottom has enabled it to rest upright on the harbor bottom.
It is 5:30, but the darkening sky makes the late afternoon seem like late evening. The ocean has begun to surge back in to the harbor and tosses the fallen ships all about. The Wateree is drifting aimlessly with no way to control itself in the turbulence. Then, something more ominous grabs our attention. Dawson points out to sea.
“Look! What is that?”
“A distant white ridge of surf is breaking out beyond the harbor. I can hear it now,” I say.
Only minutes later, the distant churn has become a tumultuous roar. The whole ocean is rising up at the head of the harbor into a towering wall of brown water. It’s racing straight towards us.
“Get below! Get below! Secure the hatches! Run! RUN!” I scream.
The monstrous surge thunders towards us like a thousand locomotives. As the wave crashes down over the Wateree, I close the hatch and hold on to a steel railing with all my strength. The ship abruptly lurches and groans under the tremendous force seizing it. Will the Wateree rip apart?
Panic grips me, “I don’t want to die, Please help.. AAAHHH!”
The ship rolls over completely and the porthole next to me goes dark. The Wateree is under water! Several impossibly long minutes pass and then, like a runaway elevator, the ship starts to rise. Light breaks in from the porthole. We are on the surface again! I know I should try to go up on deck to help save the ship, but the Wateree is still being tossed wildly about. I’m terrified.
I say to my self, “Come on Cavanaugh. Get out there. Keep your wits about you. You’ve got to help the crew.”
I finally muster some courage and open the hatch. Cold salty water splashes my face. To my relief, I see Dawson and other crewmen already running about the deck. I’m dazed but call out to my friend.
“Dawson! I’ll check the aft for damage.”
“Hurry Cavanaugh. Look for people too and take a gaff hook with you,” he responds.
I’m puzzled at first by his instruction. Then, I look down at the turbulent waters and understand. The great wave is carrying us over the city of Arica itself! The Wateree is floating by the tops of church steeples, houses and other buildings. People are clinging to debris and floundering in the water. I see a little girl holding on to part of a roof. The Wateree is drifting swiftly past her. I only have a moment to save her.
“Hold on Miss! Grab this. I’ll pull you in,” I yell.
It is past seven o’clock. Darkness has fallen over the Wateree. The crew has rescued dozens of people who, like the girl I saved earlier, are all huddled and shivering with blankets. The Wateree is aground in a sandy ravine. We are several hundred yards inland from the harbor.
What an astounding tale I will have to share with my friends and family! I suddenly realize too how incredible it is that I’m even alive to tell of this.
The great Arica Chile quake, one of the ten most powerful earthquakes in history, occurred on August 13, 1868 at approximately 5:05pm. The quake registered a Richter scale magnitude of 8.5. Several tsunamis generated by the quake struck the harbor. The second wave, which carried the U.S.S. Wateree inland, was estimated to be over ninety feet tall. The stability of the Wateree’s unique flat bottom design is likely the reason why it was the only ship of three anchored in the harbor at that time to survive the disaster. The Wateree never sailed again and was sold for scrap metal several years later. The city of Arica was completely destroyed by this disaster which claimed more than 25,000 lives. A monument stands on the north shore of Arica today as a memorial of the disaster and a tribute to the brave crewmen of the U.S.S. Wateree.