TAMSIN Jackson ran for her life when Ecuador’s worst earthquake in decades struck on April 16.
But the young Brisbane Catholic woman has returned to the disaster-stricken coast where she was staying, as a volunteer helping survivors recover their lives.
Ms Jackson, 24, had been travelling through South America since November last year, and was visiting the tourist town of Canoa when the magnitude-7.8 tremor hit.
The town, one of the closest to the epicentre of the quake, was 90 per cent destroyed.
She had been enjoying a night at Canoa’s beachfront with a friend, Roberto, when buildings nearby started collapsing into rubble.
What followed was a harrowing night that changed Tamsin’s holiday of a lifetime into a mercy mission to help survivors.
“We tried to stumble to the middle of the road, were thrown to the ground violently and had to crawl … all the houses crumbled to the ground around us,” she wrote.
“A child tried to run away in the confusion, his family next to us. I had to grab him and we all sheltered over him. Roberto instinctively huddled over me.
“As we stood, the sounds of cracking earth and falling buildings died down. The loud screams of chaos became more apparent.”
Roberto warned Tamsin there was an impending risk of a tsunami, and they started running towards higher ground.
Ms Jackson was due to return home to Brisbane, but she was so moved by her near-death experience, that she has joined emergency workers, handing out water in the isolated towns along the Pacific coast.
As Ecuador still experiences powerful aftershocks, the death toll has climbed to more than 650.
Initially unable to contact her mother, and her seven brothers and sisters, to confirm her safety, Ms Jackson documented on her Facebook page the moment the main earthquake struck.
“The sound was deafening. The ground shook so hard,” she wrote.
“As we ran all we could hear were screams of names, of desperate children calling their parents, and repeatedly hearing the word ‘tsunami’,” she wrote.
“We ran towards the hill, climbing over houses that had become piles.
“We heard the groans of an old man stuck underneath his house.
“I lifted the roof and my friend pulled him out as his daughter came screaming ‘Papi’ towards him.
“Ducking under and over electricity lines, we passed a lady covered in the blood of her daughter she carried in her arms.
“Other parents were still looking for their children. A lady passed a baby to my friend so she could help her family.
“After slipping and falling over rocks in the dark we reached the top.”
Her companion, Roberto, returned to the village to help.
Tamsin stayed with the group of children they had helped flee the village. At this point she stopped to pray.
“Silent tears fell down my face as I thought of so many lives lost,” she wrote.
Aftershocks were starting, it was raining, and in the town below gas tanks were exploding and houses were on fire. Tamsin led the group onwards looking for a safer place.
“I wanted to wait for Roberto but an hysterical girl clung to me,” she wrote.
“I stumbled through the dark pulling the disorientated girl and found a little boy in hysterics that had left the group and was crying for his father.
“I couldn’t let him go back down the bluff, it was unsafe. I grabbed the boy and put him on my back. And I held the girl’s hand tight to take them both.
“Thankfully as we found the group the mother of the boy appeared behind us dressed only in a towel. Other people started appearing a few at a time.
“A screaming mother and father brought their dead little boy to place on the ground a few metres from me. The woman wailed over his tiny body. The screams will haunt my dreams forever.
The father repeatedly cried “Take me instead, not this way, my negro, my boy, he is only six”, as he rocked the little body back and forth.
“Everyone was crying silently with them. Other mothers and fathers clung to their children, covering them in blessings and kisses.
“I was sitting in the dirt and rain being eaten by insects. But I was alive …”
Hours later, and still in the dark, Tamsin returned with the children to Canoa. The town of 5000 people was in chaos.
No help had arrived because the roads into the town were blocked by landslides.
She sheltered in a church.
She prayed as the church became the makeshift emergency centre, with the injured arriving for treatment, as well as the dead being carried there for burial.
Roberto appeared, covered in blood.
He had spent hours helping to dig for a woman trapped under the rubble of a building. He had pulled her out, but she died in his arms.
As the sun rose over Canoa, Tamsin wrote that she could see the full extent of the damage.
“There was nothing. The whole town was destroyed,” she wrote.
Later that morning Tamsin and Roberto started a long drive away from the battered coast to the inalnd centre of Quito where Roberto lived.
The trip took two days because of landslides.
After several days recuperating, Tamsin returned to the coast to be part of the recovery efforts.
“I just feel sad for the people of Ecuador,” she wrote.
Tamsin is the youngest member of a strong Catholic family.
It was a bitter sweet moment of relief tinged with sadness for the scale of the tragedy when her mother, five brothers and two sisters read of Tamsin’s experience posted on Facebook.
Last Sunday, April 24, her older sister Monette Emery arranged for a thanksgiving Mass for Tamsin’s life and to pray for Ecuador.
It was held at St John Vianney’s Church, Manly.
The Mass was celebrated by Fr Frank Jones who has spent 15 years as a missionary and nurse in Ecuador.