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BC group safe after harrowing experience in Costa Rica

It was like somebody was trying to push them off their feet. That’s how Bridgewater College professor Charles Fleis described the Jan. 8 earthquake that hit Costa Rica while Fleis and a group of BC students were in the country on an education-related trip.
“There was a great deal of shaking. Rocks tumbled, trees shook and broke, there were landslides, and the banks of the falls collapsed. This earth rushed down the river and took out the bridge, which we had just crossed,” said Fleis, who had taken a group from BC to Costa Rica to learn about its life and Latin American culture.

The group is in the country through the end of the month. They were actually in a jungle when the earthquake hit, and had to hack their way out with the help of a guide. “While the quake and its aftershocks continued, we hurriedly climbed over landslides, fallen trees and several other impediments,” Fleis said. “Finally, we arrived at the top of the mountain, where the Springs Resort is located, and we had to make an impromptu camp in the parking lot” because the buildings at the resort were not structurally safe following the quake and aftershocks, Fleis said.

At the resort, the students on the trip “kept their calm,” Fleis said, and pitched in to help more than 400 trapped tourists and locals. Fleis said the students helped make tents from tarps in the tour vans, gathered rocks for fire pits and wood for fires, and made scrambled and hardboiled eggs for the people around them. They also helped clear an area for helicopter landings.

“They did most of the work for the 200-plus people in our camp,” Fleis said. “They offered their shelters to others and were in good spirits all night, even though no one slept because of the tremors, the cold and the rain.”

Two students did have to be airlifted out of the resort area – one for asthma attacks and one for hypothermia. Both have recovered, Fleis said. The rest of the group hiked out – roads were impassable, one having been obliterated by water from a broken dam, and others cracked open or covered by debris from landslides. It was a five-mile uphill journey through rain-soaked fields. “It was sad to see the devastation to the landscape and to the villages,” Fleis said. “Costa Rican National Police were our guides. Along the way, farmers helped take some on their ATVs.”

The group arrived at Vara Blanca on Jan. 9, then hiked to a bus where they were evacuated to the homes of their host families in San Jose.

“We learned that the park guide who helped us out of the jungle lost an uncle and his entire home in the earthquake,” Fleis said. “The students, of their own volition, took up a collection and offered it to him in order to help feed his family and survive the next few days. Initially he refused, but I insisted on behalf of the group and forced the money into his pocket.

“Once again,” Fleis said, “this was an inspiring example of how these students outshone all others who were trapped on the mountain during this crisis.”


– Story by Chris Graham