In the very early morning of February 4, 1976, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake levels much of Guatemala City, killing 23,000 people and leaving one million others homeless.
It was 3:04 a.m. when the first large tremor, centered six miles under the Earth’s surface 120 miles northwest of Guatemala City, struck. The quake was the result of a clash between the Caribbean and North American plates on the Motagua Fault. In a matter of minutes, about one third of the city was destroyed. All over the city, sleeping residents were crushed and killed when their weak adobe homes collapsed on top of them.
Immediately, efforts began to rescue the thousands of people buried beneath the rubble. Many people could not be saved, as it was extremely difficult to get help to the city. The roads and bridges leading to Guatemala City had been extensively damaged. Thousands of those people lucky enough to be pulled out alive suffered broken backs and pelvises. It is estimated that more than 70,000 people suffered serious injuries. The U.S. Air Force assisted by airlifting food and medicine into the area. With all the available hospitals filled beyond capacity, the United States also set up a field hospital in Chimaltenango. The number of deceased overwhelmed the authorities, so communal grave sites had to be established. To make matters worse, strong aftershocks followed for an entire week, terrorizing the survivors, who were staying in improvised shelters.