In the year before Joel Roach came to Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital as the service excellence manager, he traveled to Ecuador for nine months, spending his time doing mission work with the Jehovah's Witnesses, learning Spanish, and volunteering in and around Manta, a medium-sized port city on the Pacific coast.
On April 16, 2016, Joel met a friend from the local congregation for dinner. At this point, Joel had been in Ecuador for seven and a half months and knew the region well. Joel's friend wanted to go to a Chinese restaurant in Tarqui called Lun Fun, but Joel was craving camotillo, a fish from the Galápagos, that was only served at one restaurant he knew, located near the ocean.
Joel's friend relented. They traveled to the restaurant, were seated and began to eat. Then the whole room began to shake. First, it shook up and down. Joel describes it feeling like the table was lifting five feet in the air. Then, after seconds that felt like hours, it switched, and the room began moving from side to side, shattering glass and knocking everything to the floor.
A lot of the houses looked like dollhouses, with the front stripped off, and we were looking into people’s kitchens and living rooms.
The magnitude of the earthquake was 7.8, and much of the country was destroyed. The Chinese restaurant where Joel's friend had wanted to eat had been on the ground floor of an eight-story building. That building had collapsed, crushing the bottom three floors. Tragically, everyone at Lun Fun had been killed.
Joel and his friend moved around the restaurant where they were, making sure everyone was OK. Then they left, walking to the friend's house. All along the road, they saw destruction. "A lot of the houses looked like dollhouses, with the front stripped off," Joel recalls, "and we were looking into people's kitchens and living rooms. In one house, the earth had literally lifted up and split through the middle of the house."
Everywhere, people were distressed, some searching or shouting for loved ones, and many in need of help.
Joel has a diverse racial background, with African, Cherokee, Scots-Irish and South Asian lineage, a mixture that led many Ecuadoreans to assume he was a local. As people reached out to him, he would reply in imperfect Spanish and help where he could, locating water and supplies for people he saw.
Joel and his friend reached the friend's apartment, but it was damaged and, they worried, no longer stable. They gathered with others in the courtyard of a welcoming neighborhood, talking in worried tones about friends and family. "Whenever you greeted someone and asked how they were," Joel says, "everyone said the same thing: asustado … scared." Like everyone else that night and the night that followed, Joel lay outside through the aftershocks and tried to sleep.
Days later, he passed a police station and saw a group of 40 children playing tag. The joy of their play, within the context of such devastation, was touching to see, but it was tempered for him by the realization that they were there because they were alone — with parents either dead or missing in the chaos.
Over the next six weeks, amid the more than 1,000 aftershocks that followed the quake, Joel worked ceaselessly from dawn until nightfall, distributing food and water, providing emotional and spiritual comfort, acting as an ad hoc security guard, and helping to rebuild lives and homes.
The earthquake had leveled the air traffic control tower at the airport in Manta, but by the time Joel was scheduled to leave, the United States military had constructed a temporary tower. Joel said goodbye to friends, gave away the belongings he had acquired and then settled into a night of sleep before his flight.
On the morning that he left, Joel was awakened at 3 a.m. with a 6.7-magnitude aftershock. Then, after flying to Quito on his way back to the U.S., he was in a final 6.8-magnitude quake. Or, at least, that is what people in Quito told him. He didn't even feel it.