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More than 500 people were killed when Peru was hit with by an enormous earthquake last week. When we learned that Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and author of the GPL under which the GNU/Linux operating system is licensed, was in Peru during the quake, we asked if he would share his experiences with us. Here's his report.
On the evening of August 15 I was answering email in the offices of COSOLIG, the free software organization of the Universidad Inca Garcilaso de la Vega in Lima. I was just about to do a batch mail transfer when the earthquake began. It was strong enough to shake my body in an interesting way, but insufficient to damage a concrete building, or even to make a bookshelf fall over.
Other people in the office urged me to go outside with them, and I did so, figuring they knew better than me. Some of them were quite frightened, but the shaking did not get stronger and we could plainly see that no damage was being done. I was surprised by the long duration of the shaking, which lasted more than a minute. Nothing was damaged at the university, and not much in Lima at all. For me, it was an exhilarating experience.
When the shaking stopped, I went back into the building and tried to do the mail transfer, but the entire Peruvian Internet had crashed, so it was impossible. Instead I answered questions for a pending interview. The Internet came back up around an hour later.
About 20 minutes after the quake, people reported having heard a news report that the epicenter had been in the jungle, inland. I thought it was good news, because I figured there would not be much damage or casualties there. It was only the next day that I learned that southern coastal cities had had substantial casualties and damage.
Several people I know wrote that they were worried I had been hurt. Since the casualties were few, rationally they should have presumed I was OK. Someone even started a rumor that I was "missing." He could not have had any basis for that statement.
I was supposed to take a bus to Chimbote that night. We thought for a while that the bus would be cancelled, because communications were out and the line could not tell that the roads were safe. That would have meant missing my speech the next day. However, the bus departed on schedule and I gave the speech as planned.
I read that a church collapsed on worshipers during mass; later I heard that the priest had been rescued. Believers surely attributed the rescue to the good will of a benevolent deity. They probably did not attribute the collapse to the ill will of an evil deity, but it would be equally logical. In the 18th century, an earthquake destroyed a cathedral in Lisbon, killing thousands of believers. Many in Europe began to doubt religion as a result.