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SHSU students survive earthquake

By Michelle C. Lyons/The Huntsville Item

Frieda Koeninger was in her sixth-floor hotel room Tuesday afternoon when she felt the floor beginning to move beneath her. It didn't take long for this former Mexico resident to know what was happening - she was caught in an earthquake.

Within moments, the Sam Houston State University professor was in the hallway, gathering her students - all SHSU scholars studying in Puebla as part of the university's Mexican field school - into a stairwell leading into the hotel lobby. She doesn't remember repeating, "Don't go down the elevator," even when told later by her students that this is what she shouted up and down the halls.

The students quickly abandoned their rooms - several not taking the time even to put on their shoes. One unlucky soul who had been in the shower when the earthquake began at about 3:41 p.m. was clad only in a towel and consequently spent a few uncomfortable hours with his group outside the Palacio San Leonardo hotel while engineers inspected the old building for structural damage and gas leaks.

None of the SHSU students or faculty studying in Puebla were injured in the magnitude 6.7 earthquake which devastated many buildings across central Mexico, injured hundreds of people and killed an estimated 16. But according to at least a few, it was the most traumatic experience of their lives.

Each summer, a group from SHSU journeys to Puebla to study a number of different subjects - everything from ceramics and drawing to Spanish and international business. The group also takes a number of field trips around the country.

This year's group included about 22 undergraduate students and eight postgraduate students studying under SHSU's doctoral educational leadership. There were also about six faculty members who made this year's trip.

All the doctoral students, three undergraduate students and two faculty members returned to the United States on Wednesday following their unnerving earthquake experience, while Koeninger, a few other faculty members and 19 students stayed behind to finish up their studies and return as planned on July 6.

According to Jimmy Merchant, director of the Center for Research and Doctoral Studies in Educational Leadership, those who returned Wednesday were able to get to Mexico City late Tuesday night, spending the night in an airport hotel. They then were able to get on a flight returning to Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport at about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Merchant said he was able to speak by phone to at least one of the faculty members who experienced the earthquake, Beverly Irby. Irby was one of those who returned to the United States, but while still in Mexico, described the event to Merchant as "the most traumatic experience of any of our lives."

"It was extremely frightening," Irby told the Item Wednesday evening after returning to her Huntsville home. "I think we all agreed it was the most frightening experience we'd ever been through."

Irby, a colleague and the doctoral students were eating a late lunch together in a restaurant near their hotel when the earthquake hit. It lasted about two minutes, she said, and she and the rest of her group sought refuge in the restaurant's doorway.

"It was a long two minutes," she recalled. "You could see fear on everyone's face."

The group decided it would be better to get away from any buildings, and they made their way to a nearby park. After the quake was over, they came to the consensus that getting out of Mexico altogether would be their best move, so the group caught the last bus out of Puebla and one of the first planes back to America.

Interestingly enough, Koeninger, the director of the Mexican field school, had almost the opposite to say of the event. Because she lived in Mexico for about 25 years, earthquakes were an almost common occurrence.

"We're just great," she said in a telephone interview with the Item from Mexico. "Everything is just fine. I know TV has made it look so terrible (down here), but we're fine."

Koeninger said while many nearby buildings sustained minor damage, including cracks and broken windows, the group saw little devastation near the hotel. Even where there was damage, she added, efforts were already under way to make repairs.

"The people here are really prepared for emergencies of this type," she said, adding that most establishments had already replaced broken windows and were reopened for business.

Koeninger said most of the students handled their run-in with the earthquake quite well.

"The students were really wonderful - they weren't panicky at all," she said, adding that the two students who were perhaps most startled were the two which had the closest call with harm. Koeninger explained that while most of the undergraduate students were together at the hotel when the earthquake hit, about five were elsewhere, including two female students.

The young women, she said, were a few blocks away from the hotel and were about to pass through an outdoor walkway featuring a glass ceiling. Only a moment before they stepped beneath the walkway, the earthquake began and the glass began to rain down upon the concrete - in the exact spot where the students were about to walk.

Koeninger added that many of the students actually seemed excited about their encounter with Mother Nature. Their earthquake experience even was incorporated into Wednesday's studies, she said, especially in a business management class where students analyzed how various civic leaders and even their own hotel management handled the crisis.

"The kids are just really good," she said of her students. "They are excited about having had this new experience."

Puebla, a city of about 1.2 million, is 60 miles east of Mexico City. At least two people were killed there, while another estimated 200 were injured.

Puebla reportedly was declared a disaster area by President Ernesto Zedillo.

According to published reports, the earthquake was centered near Huajuapan de Leon, 80 miles south of Puebla, while the epicenter was calculated near the city of Tehuacan.

Irby said the group had been sightseeing in Tehuacan only the day before the earthquake hit.

Irby said she's yet to decide whether she might ever go back to Mexico.

"I haven't thought about that yet," she said, "We're just glad to be home now."

Posted June 17, 1999 w/permission from The Huntsville Item
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