Damasi, Greece – The young schoolgirl crouching underneath her desk was still, even as everything around her had just been trembling. Terrified, all she could do was scream and cry.
“As I approached her, I tried to reassure her, telling her not to be afraid,” said Grigorios Letsios, head teacher of the primary school of Damasi, a sleepy village in central Greece shaken by a powerful earthquake on Wednesday shortly after noon.
As soon as the magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit, Letsios, a stocky 58-year-old with 32 years of teaching experience, instinctively darted out of his ground-level office, down the hallway and up the stairs.
The two-level building’s false ceiling had just collapsed, kicking up a cloud of debris and dust.
“Everything was covered in darkness,” Letsios said on Thursday. “The building was dancing up and down, left and right, with a terrible clatter,” he recalled. “My only thought was the lives of the children and how I’ll be able to protect them.”
When the jolting stopped, Letsios went classroom by classroom and ordered an evacuation. His well-trained teaching staff and students executed it perfectly, while he stayed behind to make sure no child was trapped. It was in the last classroom where he found the frozen 12-year-old girl.
“I lifted her up and told her, ‘I’m going to get you out, don’t worry’,” said Letsios. “As soon as we made it to the yard, I handed her to her teacher and entered the school again to make sure there’s no one inside.”
There was not. While the pastel-hued school was badly damaged, its walls cracked and furniture toppled, all of its 63 students and 10 teachers survived unscathed.
It was much of the same for the rest of Damasi, where more than 100 houses either collapsed or were heavily damaged. But miraculously, residents in this farming village say, no one was badly injured even as forceful tremors – some as strong as magnitude 5.9 on Thursday evening – continued for the next 24 hours.
“We are frightened and we don’t know what will happen next, but thankfully no one got seriously hurt,” said Vakis, sitting on a plastic chair near the centre of the local football pitch, just a short walk from the school.
Looking tired but calm, he was among the dozens of Damasi residents who braved subzero temperatures and spent the night in one of the tents set up on the grass. Many more opted to sleep in their vehicles stationed alongside the dusty roads surrounding the field, while others decided to seek shelter with relatives or friends further away from the epicentre.
“Last night was the worst, like no other,” said Eleni, trying to hold back tears as she leaned on a pick-up truck that also served as a shelter for her family overnight. In her house, she said, everything was destroyed. “Glass, furniture – even the radiators came off the walls.”
Greece is in a highly seismically active region but it is rare for earthquakes to cause significant damage or many deaths, especially in this part of the country.
Eighty years ago almost to the day, on March 1, 1941, a similar intensity earthquake in the area wrecked Larissa, dealing a massive blow to the region’s main city that was at the time being heavily bombarded by Italian fighter jets during World War II.
This time, however, Larissa – some 30km (19 miles) south of Damasi – withstood the sheer force of the earthquake, with only some buildings suffering minor damage.
It was a different picture, however, for Mesochori, a small village of some 300 residents 15km (10 miles) northwest of Damasi. While authorities are still assessing the extent of the damage, dozens of homes have already been found uninhabitable, leaving their occupants in need of shelter.
Among the destroyed buildings is the village’s imposing St Demetrios Church, with its belfry and parts of its stoned-masonry walls collapsed.
“I experienced all this horror by seeing the church crumple in front of my eyes,” said Giannis Zarladanis, Mesochori’s elected community leader, who was about 50 metres (164 feet) away when the earthquake struck. “I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
At an impromptu meeting with visiting officials on Thursday on the edge of the village’s square, Zarladanis urged central authorities to help stranded residents by providing adequate shelter and portable toilets.
“The situation is very difficult,” he said, standing a few metres away from Red Cross workers preparing to hand out lunch to residents. “The people are very scared and there are aftershocks constantly.”
Back in Damasi, Letsios and two firefighters riskily rushed in and out of the soon-to-be demolished school, each time bringing out different items.
“We saved whatever we could,” he said, covered in dust and exhausted. Next to him was a small pile of hardware gear, an amplifier and a gym mat, among other items. He also brought out the children’s school bags left behind to give them to their parents.
“The parents all thanked us for saving their children, without any injuries,” said Letsios, himself a father of two.
“I wasn’t able to sleep all night yesterday,” he added, visibly moved. “I still haven’t gotten over it – the shock was huge.”