A geologist’s holiday – the 2017 Aegean earthquake

As tremors continue in the Aegean, the British Geological Survey’s Debbie Rayner recounts her experience of a magnitude 6.6 earthquake which struck during a family holiday on Kos earlier this year…

July 21st 2017 Earthquake Map (credit: US Geological Survey)

‘I leapt up out of the bed and shouted “earthquake!” We knew immediately what it was.’

As members of staff at the British Geological Survey, Debbie and Jim Rayner are used to being surrounded by all things geology. But when they travelled to the Greek island of Kos in July this year, they didn’t expect their day job to follow them.

Ten days into their holiday, on the morning of 21 July, a magnitude 6.6 earthquake struck with an epicentre six miles south of the Turkish resort of Bodrum and ten miles from Kos. In total, more than 200 people were injured. On Kos, two people were killed.

The aftermath of the earthquake (credit: Debbie & Jim Rayner/British Geological Survey)

Jim and Debbie work in data and science support services at the Survey, managing graphic design, sales, photography and reception. So whilst not geologists themselves, they knew exactly who to contact when the earthquake struck.

‘Obviously the first thing work asked us was if were we ok’ Debbie recalls. ‘After that, we were asked if we could take pictures and write about our experience. And we were asking a lot of questions ourselves – how long is this going to go on for, particularly. It was nice to have a direct line to the people that know.’

The harbour of Kos, before the earthquake (c. Kallerna, Wikipedia)

Jim and Debbie were holidaying with their teenage son and a friend of his, who were staying in separate accommodation – a compromise between the traditional family holiday and allowing the boys to travel by themselves.

‘So we were staying in two separate places on the island – they were in Kos town, and Jim and I were just outside it, about two miles down the road.’

The earthquake struck at around 1.31 am local time. The two casualties both occurred in a bar in the centre of Kos Town, whose roof had collapsed. Luckily, both hotels the group were staying in were built post 1973, when EU regulations requiring all buildings in Kos be earthquake proof came into effect. Debbie and Jim’s hotel was also stepped back into a rock face, providing further protection from the earthquake.

An overturned boat in the harbour (credit: Debbie & Jim Rayner/British Geological Survey)

‘I woke up being violently shaken on the bed’ Debbie recalls. ‘The whole room was swaying from side to side. I couldn’t get myself out of bed because I was rocking so much – as soon as I could, I leapt up and shouted ‘earthquake.’ We knew immediately what it was.’

Their hotel had a generator, so although the lights went out, the emergency lighting came on quickly.

‘I grabbed my phone and we ran out of the door. Lots of other people were coming out of their rooms, and ceiling tiles were falling. We ran to the emergency exit and out onto the roof.’

The aftermath of the earthquake (credit: Debbie & Jim Rayner/British Geological Survey)

Meanwhile, in the heart of Kos town, their son and his friend had left Bar Street – the location of the two casualities – just half an hour before.

‘My son was in the foyer of his hotel when the earthquake struck, and he knew straight away what it was. He told me afterwards that he could see the water of the swimming pool sloshing over the sides’ says Debbie.

His friend was on the balcony of their room, talking on the phone to his girlfriend.

‘The shutters started violently shaking, and he was thrown onto the floor.’ With no emergency generator, he had find his way outside in darkness, and the boys found each other amongst the mayhem in the foyer.

‘Before I got out of our own room’ says Debbie, ‘I had text after text from my son asking if we were ok. I couldn’t respond quickly enough because they were coming so fast! He knew we were on the seventh floor, so he was extremely worried.’

Many hotel guests chose to sleep outside as the aftershocks continued (credit: Debbie & Jim Rayner/British Geological Survey)

By 4.30am, their hotel had been declared safe and they were allowed back in. But this was only the beginning of a long few days and nights interrupted by recurring aftershocks – some as big as magnitude 4.6.

‘We lay there hearing rumble after rumble. I kept thinking ‘I’m out of here – no I’m fine – I’m out of here – no I’m fine’ – your mind just keeps on going round and round like that for days.’

The aftershocks continued for many weeks following the earthquake. ‘It messes with your head. We were constantly wondering if there was going to be another one, and how big it was going to be. We weren’t drinking because we wanted to stay alert. We were scared – more so, I suppose, because we know a bit more than some about what can happen.’

Many holiday makers felt safer sleeping out of doors – Jim and Debbie included. ‘We were lucky, because we’d already had ten days of our holiday. Like a lot of people, we spent the last few nights sleeping around the pool on sunloungers and bedding taken from the hotel.’

Damage to Kos habour (credit: Debbie & Jim Rayner/British Geological Survey)

As soon as day light broke they were reunited with the boys, and later that afternoon all four cycled through Kos town together. Although many areas were cordoned off for safety, it was an opportunity to take some photographs of the damage done by the quake, and send them back to their colleagues at the British Geological Survey.

‘It was a bit like a busman’s holiday!’ says Debbie. ‘But it was nice to be able to have that direct line to the experts.’

As for next year’s holiday, Debbie is keen to steer clear of Kos, despite her fondness for the island. ‘We’ve been to Kos many times, as we like the island so much’ she says. ‘But I think we’ll try and avoid fault lines in future. Perhaps Scarborough, next year!’

Read more about the July 2017 Aegean earthquake:


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