The city of Managua suffered extreme damage from the shaking and from fires.
On the evening of December 22, 1972, the city of Managua, Nicaragua, was hit with an earthquake of magnitude 6.2. Because the city was hosting a major baseball tournament that had added additional festivities to the pre-Christmas season, little attention was paid to the first tremors. Small tremors are commonplace in this Central American country. As midnight approached the tremors increased in both frequency and strength and homes were shaking with such violence that many people moved out of their homes. Soon fires broke out all over the city, triggered by the earthquake, and a state of near panic developed. All lights had gone out and the smoke and fires made it difficult for anyone to know with any accuracy what was happening. Next morning the details of the tragedy became clear: 5,000 people had lost their lives, 20,000 had been injured, and the whole city looked like a place that was at war.
Two elements in the site of Managua add to the terror of earthquakes. First, the foundation of the city is not solid rock as one might suppose but rather fragments of volcanic material that together add up to a sort of rock cushion, easily disturbed and shaken by seismic vibrations. The other problem is the type of material used in housing construction, a local resource consisting of rough wood frames with adobe and stone infilling and with clay roofs. This type of house collapses easily when an earthquake strikes, as happened here on a grand scale.
People were running around, screaming, searching desperately for children and friends who were caught in the collapsed buildings. Medical personnel coped as well as they could as the city’s eight hundred-bed hospital broke apart, killing over ninety adults and children. At the local prison, an ancient building, eighty of the prisoners were crushed to death when the building collapsed. About four hundred others managed to escape through the open walls.
Nicaragua like other nations along the western coasts of North and South America is under the influence of subducting ocean tectonic plates and these are the causes of the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that occur. In Nicaragua’s case the subducting plate is the Cocos and it is always moving beneath the Caribbean Plate at a rate of about three inches a year.
From the middle of the nineteenth century, when instruments were available for the first time to detect seismic activity in this region, Nicaragua has experienced ten major earthquakes, all of them of relatively small magnitude but, because of the nature of the underlying rock, nevertheless able to do enormous damage. In March of 1931 an earthquake of magnitude 5.6 struck the western part of the city and killed a thousand people. The December 1972 event is regarded as the second most disastrous earthquake in the history of this Central American region.
On the morning after the quake rescuers began the difficult task of disposing of the thousands of unclaimed corpses. Because of the prevailing high temperature, even in December, some bodies had to be doused with gasoline and set on fire. Three days later, because all the bodies had not yet been incinerated or buried, a large part of downtown Managua was declared a contaminated area. It was leveled and covered over with lime. Help for the stricken city came from many places.
Costa Rica, Nicaragua’s nearest neighbor nation to its south, sent in a medical team on the day after the quake. On the same day aid arrived from Cuba and Honduras. The United States sent doctors nurses and supplies. Reconstruction began at once and a significant amount of improvement had been achieved in the succeeding five years before political change slowed down the work. Today much of the damage from the 1972 earthquake can still be seen in Managua’s downtown area.