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A resident pauses at the San Francisco de Curico church March 1, 2010, after it was damaged in a major earthquake. (Eliseo Fernandez/Eliseo Fernandez/REUTERS)
A resident pauses at the San Francisco de Curico church March 1, 2010, after it was damaged in a major earthquake. (Eliseo Fernandez/Eliseo Fernandez/REUTERS)

Social networking in a disaster zone Add to ...

The phone rang at 4:30 a.m. Saturday. It was a close friend in Seattle who had seen news reports of an earthquake in Chile on Yahoo News. She knew our daughter, Sarah, was studying in Santiago. My wife screamed at me, "Big earthquake in Chile and Sarah's on a bus right near the epicentre!" We got up, grabbed our computers and turned the TV on to CNN.

It was true: magnitude 8.8. It had hit 325 kilometres southwest of Santiago near the city of Concepcion, and within 75 kilometres of where we thought Sarah's bus must have been. My heart sank. The CNN images looked awful, shots of collapsed highways, houses and bridges. At least I couldn't see any buses dangling off the bridges or lying in canyons.

Our first instinct was to pick up the phone. We tried Sarah's cell. Dead. Friends. Land lines dead. Power. Out. How the hell were we ever going to find out if she was safe? Then the penny dropped and we realized that social media were probably our only tools.

Sarah and three friends had boarded the overnight sleeper bus four hours earlier from Santiago for a long weekend in Pucon, nine hours south in the lake district, a beautiful area of snow-peaked volcanoes and crystal blue lakes not unlike Banff. We wished her farewell on Skype and sat back to watch Canada's nail-biting hockey victory over Slovakia on TV.





But that was a distant memory. We went on Twitter and Facebook and posted status updates asking for information. My wife left a message on Sarah's Facebook wall asking for anyone with news of the four students she was travelling with. We Googled bus companies in Chile to try to determine which one she had taken. I called Visa to see if there was a record of the transaction. Nothing. Then my wife went on Skype and found the daughter of a Chilean friend in Taiwan who said Sarah was almost certainly on Tur Bus. We tried calling. No luck.

My wife kept checking Google and found that Tur Bus had a corporate site on LinkedIn and an e-mail listed for their management. Thank you, Tur Bus! I composed a message to Fernando Hernandez, human-resources manager, in bumpy but understandable Spanish. Meanwhile, a former colleague in Santiago, Wilhelm Camus, had seen my Facebook post and was eager to help. He had no phone service or power, but he crawled all the local news services online and reported that no bus accidents had been listed. A start.

At 10:48, an e-mail came through from Señor Hernandez. His BlackBerry was somehow working. "There may be delays because of possible breaches in some bridges." Gross understatement, but I was so buoyed that I chanced a reply. "Any reports of bus accidents?" Almost immediately he replied, "Not as far as I know." We were encouraged. It was now 11 a.m. and we had had no news for six and a half hours. Communications were worst in the area where Sarah should be. It could be days before we found her, and CNN kept talking about how the death toll was sure to mount.

Tweets came in from people with friends and family in Chile. Then came a Facebook post advising that UStream was carrying a live broadcast of TV Nacional, the CBC of Chile. A good thing, because CNN was shifting its focus to the tsunami watch in Hawaii.

The minutes were ticking by. Our imaginations were running wild. The pictures on TV Nacional were terrible. More downed bridges, buckled pavement, collapsed buildings, people injured. Friends posted Facebook messages and pointed out that being on a bus was safer than being in a building. Correct … unless you're also on a bridge or near a falling building - something I didn't even want to think about.

And then, just like that, at 12:35 p.m., a call from Sarah's friend in Montreal told us to check a Facebook posting from an Australian friend in Santiago. Sarah had miraculously got out a local text. She was alive but stranded in a small town. We felt sick with relief. Thank you, Entel Chile for the text message. Thank you, Facebook for the post. Thank you, Haddy-the-Australian friend.

The cellphones to Chile were completely dead, but my wife somehow believed that if you made more than 500 dials you would finally get through. And she did! Sarah was surprisingly upbeat and playing cards. Then her voice changed as she described the terror of being woken by the quake. She thought the bus had gone into water during a violent storm because it was being tossed around on two wheels for three long terrifying minutes. Out the window she saw metal hydro poles being launched like missiles. The buckling road appeared like waves in the dark. The driver remained calm, and miraculously the bus stayed upright.

After we hung up and thought of how lucky we were, we also thought about how different the ordeal would have been without social media and the Internet. It could have been a two- or three-day nightmare. Google, Facebook, Skype, e-mail, BlackBerry, Ustream, LinkedIn and Twitter gave us information and power at a time we felt powerless.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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