Steve Gibby of Grover Beach escapes Chile earthquake

A few hours after the earthquake, Steve Gibby standing in one of the many sunken areas of the coastal road near Putu, Chile.
A few hours after the earthquake, Steve Gibby standing in one of the many sunken areas of the coastal road near Putu, Chile. Copyright 2010, Bud Anderson and Steve Gibby, All Rights Reserved

Grover Beach resident Steve Gibby initially thought he was having a nightmare when the earth started trembling as he slept at a beachside rental near Constitución, Chile, on Feb. 27.

It was shortly after 3:34 a.m. and pitch black in the room when the 61-year-old videographer realized it wasn’t a dream.

He hung onto the side of the bed as tightly as he could for two minutes while being tossed and rattled.

Standing wasn’t an option, Gibby recalls, now back home to tell about his near-death experience only seven miles from the epicenter of the massive earthquake.

“I’ve been through a lot of the big California quakes,” Gibby said. “They just don’t compare to what you feel in an 8.8-magnitude quake. The earth started to rumble, and then there was this huge, violent shaking and crashing. My bed was lifted clear off the ground.”

Gibby said when the shaking ceased, the ground swayed about 10 feet each way from side to side.

“The silence that came afterwards was spooky,” he said.

The Grover Beach man and the two Washington state biologists who were with him, as part of a documentary film project examining the habits of peregrine falcons, knew it was a matter of seconds before a tsunami, a tidal wave caused by earthquakes, would wash ashore.

Gibby grabbed his pants and a backpack, feeling around in the dark room. He didn’t have time to locate a shirt or shoes.

The Americans from the Falcon Research Group and two Chileans who operated the restaurant and backroom beach rental went outside and jumped in two trucks and headed for the hills on bumpy, cracked dirt roads.

Gibby said they barely escaped the devastating tsunami that hit 15 minutes after the quake struck, and likely would have killed them.

In fact, they saw water engulf the land where they had been moments before, from atop the nearest hill in the moonlit night.

Gibby returned to the United States on March 5, after clearing major obstacles on his journey through devastated Chilean towns and destroyed roads littered with debris.

In the town of Putu, Chile, they found out many fishermen’s lives had been lost, or their homes and boats destroyed, and the town devastated.

“I’ll never forget seeing people huddled around fires in towns,” Gibby said. “Their world had changed. Many had friends or relatives killed in the quake and the tsunamis that came after.”

Gibby is a Vietnam War veteran and an Emmy-winning cinematographer who has won more than 65 national awards. He’s used to dealing with stressful situations.

Gibby and the wildlife biologists from Washington state who were with him in Chile, Bud Anderson and Kathy Gunther, along with the Chileans, survived with only a few bruises and small cuts. But the quake, the powerful aftershocks and related tsunamis made it a harrowing adventure.

His family back home was worried, though he was able to send occasional texts and initially left a message for his wife, Pamala, through a satellite phone the group had with them, Gibby said.

With Santiago’s airport shut down, Gibby decided to board a bus and travel 700 miles to catch a flight in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Gibby flew to Miami, and then to Los Angeles before boarding a flight with his wife to Seattle, where he had a commitment to shoot video of a music performance by the rock band Heart and musician Alison Kraus. He finally arrived home in Grover Beach on March 7.

Today Gibby wants people to remain aware of the massive devastation in Chile and continue to help them.He also wants Californians to be prepared when the next big quake strikes — including making sure they have kits of food and water in their homes and cars.

“You can’t depend on anybody but yourself when a natural disaster occurs, and it’s only a matter of time before something like this happens here in California,” Gibby said.