Just over 50 years ago, mainland Portugal was shaken by the biggest earthquake since the 1755 earthquake – 13 people died and some houses fell. The population was frightened and, freezing, spent the night away from home.
It was four hellish minutes – roughly between 3:41 am and 3:45 am on 28th February. A country, in a panic, took to the street half naked or in pyjamas. Portugal was plagued by the biggest earthquake since the 1755 earthquake. The south, namely the Algarve, and the Lisbon region were the areas most affected by the 7.9 earthquake on the Richter scale, which was also felt in Spain and Morocco. Thirteen people died, two as a direct result of the quake and 11 indirectly and several dozen were injured.
That Friday morning, it was described as dramatic by the newspapers of the time. “With the earth, the men and women who inhabit it trembled. Because yesterday, only two kinds of people did not tremble, again the unconscious and the liars, “wrote Jornal de Notícias.
In the Algarve, the scenario was more serious. The destruction was greater, with the village of Bensafrim, near Lagos, being practically destroyed – about 50 houses were thrown to the ground by the earthquake. In this region, there were many houses and monuments, mainly churches, affected by the earthquake.
The Castro Marim Hospital, according to the DN’s envoy, was practically destroyed. In the village of Casseia, several houses collapsed and the church, rebuilt after the 1775 earthquake, suffered considerable damage.
The epicentre took place in the Atlantic Ocean, southwest of Cabo de São Vicente (Vila do Bispo). It was in that sea that “Manuel Vicente” sailed, a mixed cargo and passenger ship that made the connection between Portugal and Angola. And it was this sea that the ship’s captain would come to describe as the bubbling of a pot of boiling water.
The day after the earthquake, the DN dedicated the entire first page to the event: “An eternity in a few seconds: It will take a long time to forget the dread of the last dawn of February”, he said.
“‘Terrible! It was ghastly! ‘ So many people expressed themselves with the mask of fear raised to the highest scale on their faces, with whom we contacted immediately after the prolonged and violent earthquake, and who jostled in the streets, possessed by the bigger and natural fear of repetition of the telluric phenomenon were in tight costumes, many as they were lying, and that, in their eagerness to get out to the outside, home disbanded – they came to believe that collapsed – without bothering to grab any coat “, read in the report made in the streets of Lisbon, when the country was still awake, afraid of what might be yet to come.
The report continues: “Outside, everyone shivered with cold; there was a lot of humidity; light rain, which penetrated the bones”
The panic returned at 5:28 am, when a small response was felt. But “the tormented state of all spirits” led him to believe that it was again a tremendous shock.
Many people spent the night on the street, the photos show people on the sidewalks, others on garden benches, wrapped in blankets.
The night was startled, with fear. Lisbon woke up with the inhabitants still out of the house, each commenting on what he had seen and what he had felt. Many said that the sky had taken on a red colour, reminiscent of a northern lights, then they saw a quick but intense light. The day dawned with few clouds in the sky, with the sun shining, but with a lot of destruction: cars buried under fallen walls; the São José hospitals (where part of them had to be evacuated) and the Curry Cabral were also damaged.
It was a time when there were no cell phones and people lined up in robes and nightshirts near the phone booths: everyone wanted to know if theirs were safe, but communications were not easy, with a lack of network, destroyed devices, lines constantly interrupted.
Those who could not make the call, and there were many of them, called 13, the number of faults, located in Rua da Trindade, in Lisbon, where 25 telephone operators were on duty that night – “Emotional and sensitive human beings like all of us. Simply it happened that in that post, the woman has to be the operator. And she cannot leave the post. It was, therefore, with tears and nerves that this handful of girls continued to attend, to work, to make it possible for other people expand the same tears and let go of the same nerves “, wrote the Diário de Notícias.
At three in the morning on Saturday there were still between 10,000 and 12,000 phone calls to be made from Lisbon to the rest of the country.
The DN tells the case of Paulo Alexandre, three years old, from Boliqueime, except for his grandparents, who removed him from the cradle where he was almost suffocated by stones and debris. In Lagos, in the São José area, close to the barracks, a family was barely saved – as soon as they set foot on the street, the house where they lived collapsed in ruins.
In the following days, it was also known the testimony of the commander of “Manuel Vicente”, the ship that is sailing at the epicentre of the earthquake. Commander Oliveira Manata was at the time, reading. It was 1:43 local and he realized that the ship was behaving in a strange way. He began to pant, an expression that in nautical language means a movement similar to the opening and closing of the hand. “Although built in iron, the boat has a certain elasticity, but at that time he felt his effort. Soon after, he stopped panting and started to vibrate with great force.”
He put on his robe to see what was going on, he still thought that the vessel had lost its propeller or that one of the machines had the flu and the other was dragging, but the chief engineer had already done that check. The boat was badly shaken.