Beneath the rubble of a collapsed building, she found comfort and strength in faith.
Posted in , Aug 24, 2012
THWACK! CRACK! BAP! The noise jolted me awake. What was that awful racket? Did someone break in? I climbed out of bed and crept down the hall to the bathroom. I cracked the door open. A rush of cool, wet air hit me.
The bathroom window was shattered, and the blinds twisted violently in the wind, smacking the window frame. I shivered in my nightgown. Just a storm. Hurricanes were common back home in Florida, but this was my first English gale. Another first on this adventure of mine, I thought.
I raised the blinds and pushed the broken glass into a corner, then closed the bathroom door firmly behind me. I grabbed a flashlight in case the power went out and went back to my bedroom.
Ever since I’d come to England, I’d been on that traveler’s high, intoxicated by new discoveries. But all it took was a storm and a broken window to remind me how adrift I felt, how daunting it was not to know where my life was headed. I was 27 years old, living abroad for the first time.
I couldn’t go back to Atlanta, where I’d been living and working since I graduated from college. Too many reminders of my ex-boyfriend, my college sweetheart. I’d thought he was the one. Our breakup, after five years together, devastated me.
Nothing else in my life had been going right. Straight out of college I’d found a job in my field—hospitality management—but after five years of managing a chain restaurant, working 80 hours a week, I was burned out.
I quit my job. I needed to get away. My first thought was: England! My favorite bands all came from England and Ireland. I was sure the place that inspired such great music would inspire me.
So I went to England for a month. I fell for it all—the people, the fashion, history, architecture, restaurants. Of course, I was already into the music. A month wasn’t enough. I decided to sell my car, store my things and move to this new land I loved.
I found a charming (and surprisingly affordable) apartment on the top two floors of a Victorian-era building on a cobbled square in Brighton, on England’s southern coast. The owner ran an ad agency. His business partner worked in the Brighton office, but he worked in London and only came out on weekends, so I had the place to myself.
I got a job at a restaurant in town and met fascinating people—all with that delightful British accent. I went to pubs and concerts with my new friends. I saw U2, David Bowie, the Pretenders. I even met a promoter who got me backstage at a concert and introduced me to Mick Jagger!
Sometimes, though, my newfound independence felt overwhelming. Like tonight. During hurricanes back home, my family would huddle together in the living room and play games by candlelight if the power went out.
But there was no one I was close enough to here, no one who felt like family. I’d have to ride out this storm alone. I got back in bed, pulled the blanket tight around me and grabbed a book from the nightstand to distract me from the howling wind and rain. I fell asleep reading.
Bang! What was that? I opened my eyes to darkness. Unnatural darkness. No streetlight seeping between the blinds. Suddenly something heavy and hard fell on me, pinning me against the mattress. The air was thick, suffocating.
Was I dreaming? No. The crushing weight on me was all too real. I twisted left and right, but couldn’t get free. I’m trapped! “Help! Help me!” I screamed into the darkness, as loud as I could. The sound didn’t echo like it would in a room. It died inches from my lips, as if I were inside some kind of box. A coffin.
“Help!” I screamed again. Who’s going to hear me? I’m the only one home.
I wiggled my shoulder blades, heard wood splintering. I wrenched my arm loose and banged my elbow against the hard surface next to me. It gave way, and I felt a cool breeze on my face. Drops of rain sprinkled my cheeks. I banged again and again, until I’d made a hole. I could almost sit up. Still couldn’t get out, though.
My left hand touched something. A handle of some sort. The flashlight! I held it up and switched it on. There were broken beams, pulverized plaster, shredded insulation and soot-caked bricks all around me, swallowing me from the waist down. The dark, drizzling sky peeked through the hole I’d made.
The storm, I realized. The storm must have caved in the ceiling.
“Help!!!” I screamed until my throat ached. No one yelled back. Stay calm, I told myself. It was the wee hours of Friday morning; the owner would be arriving soon. No, not soon. Not till evening. I held the flashlight high above my head and flipped it on and off.
How did you spell S.O.S. in Morse code? Long, long, long, short, short, short? It was no use. Who was going to see me?
I lost it. I couldn’t tell what were tears and what were raindrops. There was an awful pain in my legs. Terrible thoughts stormed through my mind. What if I could never walk again? What if I never saw my mom and dad again? Would this house, this adventure, be my last? Was it all my own fault for being foolish and reckless?
All I could think to do was pray. God, please, I don’t want to die like this. All alone, so far from home. Let me see my family again. Let me walk again. Save me.
I drifted in and out, losing track of time. Through the hole in the roof, I glimpsed thin gray clouds in the moonlight, floating past the stars. The last thing I’ll ever see... But I woke again. The stars had receded and the sky held the faintest hint of blue.
“Help!” I yelled, but my voice was too weak to carry anywhere. My legs were throbbing. The pain made me pass out, but not before I prayed again to be saved.
When I opened my eyes, it was to slivers of sunlight painting the sharp angles of my prison of rubble. The sky above was a brilliant blue, as if there’d never been a storm at all. I’m still alive. But delirious. I was hearing voices. “Amy… Amy…” Was it the angels calling me? “Amy, are you in there? Can you hear me?”
I couldn’t see anyone, only the same debris—the beams, the plaster, the bricks that looked like they might give way any second. “Amy, are you there?”
“Help!” I gasped. “I’m here!”
“We’re going to get you out. Don’t worry!” Soon, I heard hammering, the buzz of electric saws. The noise seemed far away, but got closer and closer. Then a loud thud. “Amy?”
“I’m still here!”
“We’ve knocked down the wrong wall. But we know where you are now. We’ll get to you.”
Finally, dust kicked up from somewhere behind me. A medic appeared, peering from where the hall had been. He crawled toward me and grabbed my hand. “Can you feel your legs?” he asked.
The pain had been excruciating but now, nothing. “No,” I whispered.
He reached down, looked through the rubble, poked my leg with his finger. He smiled. “There’s circulation. You’re okay, love. I’ll take you dancing in two weeks, I promise you that.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls,” I croaked.
The medic gave me an oxygen mask and kept me company while firefighters worked to secure the building with scaffolding and find a way to pull me out. He told me that the storm was the worst to hit England in almost 300 years. It had done severe damage all over southern England.
In Brighton, a 200-mile-an-hour wind off the bay had toppled thousand-year-old trees—and the four-and-a-half-ton brick chimney that had crashed through my bedroom. At 10:00 A.M. a woman across the street saw that the chimney had collapsed, and called the ad agency’s local office.
She got the owner’s business partner directly—good thing, because he was the only one in all of Brighton who knew I was there.
Well, not the only one, I thought, looking up at the sky. Thank you.
The scaffolding was secured. My rescuers were ready. “You’re going to need to push while we pull,” one of the firemen said. “Okay? One, two...”
Three. I was out! Just as a firefighter wrapped me in his jacket, more debris tumbled onto the bed where I had been sleeping. The nightstand was flattened against the wall. The blanket was covered with splintered wood, my blood and soot from the fallen chimney.
I’d been trapped, crushed under the rubble, for almost eight hours. Incredibly, I’d suffered only cuts and bruises, a dislocated shoulder and a broken foot. I actually found myself a minor celebrity once the British tabloids picked up the story.
Their headline had something to do with it: “Naked Woman Rescued!” My nightgown had been torn off as the firefighters pulled me to safety.
Everyone asked if I was ready to go home. Not quite yet. God had brought me through one adventure, and I couldn’t wait to see what was next.
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