Jhon Efraín Bailón has been a volunteer firefighter in Manta for several years.  Helping others is his life’s calling.  On 16 April, while on his regular work shift, the ground beneath him began to shake.

“It was hard for me because I was at work when the earthquake hit.  I’ve been a volunteer firefighter for many years now, I used to live in 104thStreet in the affected area.  When the earthquake hit, I was on my shift and the first thing I did was lock up at work and race home.  When I saw the debris and destruction, the first thing I thought was that the hotel next door had fallen on my home.  When I finally got there, the first thing I did was look for my family to see if they were safe.”

Jhon and his family didn’t have their own home; they were living in the house of a relative who had taken them in.  This relative doesn’t live in Ecuador, but was visiting the family at the time of the earthquake.  “The house is… completely gone.  Neither of us have homes now, but he has some land where we’ve relocated to, and he’s let us settle here,” says Jhon.

“When I got to the house, I evacuated my family and grabbed my firefighter uniform to go rescue others.  The first rescue was about three blocks from my job – we rescued a little girl only to get a call that our station was being looted.  I raced over there and the police had already arrived, so I went to the Lun Fung Hotel and managed to recover a body while performing search and rescue with other firefighters.  We also saved two more people who were trapped, and then went to the Umiña hotel to work until sunrise.”

Halfway through Sunday morning, Jhon returned to his family to try and recover whatever he could from their destroyed home, only to find that everything had been looted.

What little they had was now completely gone.

Despite this blow, Jhon continued to work with rescue teams.  Working rescue at what was left of the Viña del Mar Hotel, Jhon says, was “very painful work… I cry every time I think about it.  I saw how my neighbors were holding each other under all that rubble that fell on them…  they were gone.

Earthquake in Ecuador, April 2016. Ecuadorian Red Cross actions in Manta and Portoviejo, Manabi province.

Earthquake in Ecuador, April 2016.
Ecuadorian Red Cross actions in Manta and Portoviejo, Manabi province.

Jhon says that many have called him a hero, but he doesn’t care for that title.  He doesn’t feel like a hero – he feels the whole community are the real heroes.

“I’m so grateful to the community, to our people.  Anywhere I would go, they would tell us first responders ‘hey, grab some water, have some juice…  have you eaten?  Help yourself to some food’ and things like that.

“To me, heroes aren’t real.  It’s the everyday people that are saving lives out here…” he finishes, covering his face to hide his tears.

We can help more helping together

The land Jhon and his family have relocated to has 12 families, all of whom are related to each other in some way.  Between them, they all say that despite everything, they’ve been fortunate in finding a place where they can settle together, help each other and watch over the children.  The extended family is quite large; there are 9 children between 6 months old and 5 years old between them.  The land’s dirt is a yellowish hue, full of loose sticks and stones.  12 tents have been placed so that each family has their own space and privacy.  All the family activity takes place in the yard and in the kitchen.  “These tents were sent by a good friend in Guayaquil, I’m forever indebted to him,” says Jhon.

“The days pass by full of noise and sound, the children have this yard to play in seeing as how they’re not in school.  There’s a joy and a warmth on this land.  That’s the good thing about being together and helping each other.  Actually, right now I’m the only one with a job.  My brother in law worked on a fishing boat, but the owner of the boat lost his house and now has to sell everything because he doesn’t have any money.  My wife used to work doing laundry and in the kitchen at the Viña del Mar Hotel and now that hotel is destroyed.  My wife’s cousin is out today because she was offered work for the day doing some cleaning and ironing to make some money.”

Jhon has a lot on his shoulders.  He knows he’s the de facto leader of this small community made up of his own family.  He wants to help all of them, but he knows he can’t do it alone.  “This help from the Red Cross is priceless.  With these shovels and other tools we’re going to fix this yard, and use the kitchen kits to make better meals for the women and the children.  Between having family and all the help we’ve received, we know we will move forward with our lives.”