On this day in 1972, a 6.2-magnitude earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua, kills more than 10,000 people and leaves 250,000 homeless.
The quake hit in the middle of the night and immediately destroyed nearly 75 percent of Managua. All electricity, gas, water, sewage and telephone lines were brought down so the only light for hours (during which the tremors continued non-stop) came from the many fires that broke out around the city. A later study revealed that the quake’s epicenter was quite shallow–only nine miles beneath the city–which combined with the relatively unstable soil on which the city was built and the shoddy construction practices of the day, resulted in widespread destruction. The city is right in the middle of a volcanic region and has four parallel faults that run directly beneath it. Previous quakes in 1885 and 1931 had done similar damage, but on a much smaller scale.
The following day, chaos reigned throughout the city. Although people remained trapped under the rubble, there were few rescue workers available to help them. President Anastasio Somoza was forced to order the entire city evacuated, although the order was ignored in many places. The government did not provide for the distribution of food and police were ordered to shoot looters on the spot. Four of the major hospitals in the city were also destroyed in the quake, making it difficult for the thousands of injured victims to receive medical care.
Costa Rica provided the first relief efforts from outside the country and other nations began to step forward during the week as the extent of the damage became known. Future Hall of Fame baseball player Roberto Clemente organized his own private relief effort, but the plane he filled with supplies crashed, killing him and four others.
For weeks following the earthquake, nearly half the city’s population remained homeless. Eventually, a significant portion of the city was just bulldozed without ever recovering bodies that may have been under the rubble. The entire nation was left reeling for years afterward, as half of the economy was based in Managua and virtually every business in the city was gravely affected.