'I Lived Through A Major Indonesian Earthquake That Killed Hundreds'

At the slightest vibration of the earth's surface—something as simple as a truck driving past—I'm immediately transported to the moment in which I thought I was about to die. I begin to panic and my heart races. I jump up from wherever I am and run to safety.

In the early evening of August 5, 2018, I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant with some friends in the town of Kuta on the Indonesian island of Lombok. We had just been on a sunset boat-trip together and were discussing what to do for the rest of the evening. But as we sat together, planning our next adventure, we heard an extremely loud rumbling noise.

Initially, I just thought that someone had turned the bass up too high on the restaurant speakers. But the rumble gradually became louder, and we suddenly realized that we were caught up in something much bigger. A few seconds later, our phones simultaneously lit up: "Alert: 7.0 earthquake." We were experiencing a major earthquake.

At that moment, our animal instinct to survive kicked in. We grabbed our bags and ran outside onto the street, wide-eyed and waiting for some sort of guidance of what to do next. But it never came.

A friend—the owner of the Mexican restaurant—ran out after us and grabbed my hand. We stood trembling in fear as the earth shook below our feet. Tourists were frozen in panic on the street wondering what to do as local people frantically closed up their businesses and scrambled to find transport to get to higher ground. We heard people talking about the potential threat of a tsunami. The earthquake that hit Indonesia in 2010 had triggered a tsunami and killed more than 500, so it was a very real fear.

We quickly realized that we should follow the locals, jumped on scooters and raced towards higher ground. But the streets were pandemonium—it was like an apocalyptic movie. Children were crying looking for their families, people were screaming in anticipation of what terror might await them, and it felt like the entire population was streaming out of town to try and reach safer ground.

En route, we saw a family of two adults and two very young children lugging their huge suitcases and baby strollers as they rushed to find a vehicle to take them out of town.

Lombok, earthquake, survival
Lombok, earthquake, survival
Lombok, earthquake, survival
Lombok, earthquake, survival
The Island of Lombok in Indonesia was hit by a major earthquake on August 5, 2018. Stephanie Conway was on the island when it happened.

We eventually reached an earthy hill just outside of Kuta, where we sat in a clearing between the palm trees. There were 20 of us; a mixture of local Indonesians, expats, and tourists, all nervously waiting for impending doom. The tourist family of four joined us and were cuddling their anxious children to calm their nerves.

We waited there for 6 hours without food or water. Many of us were exhausted from the anxiety and the scramble to get to safety. By the early hours of the morning, we decided to return to our villa. We all stayed together in the same room but were too terrified to actually get any sleep.

It wasn't until the next morning that we learned how bad the damage to the island was. The epi-center of the quake had been in the North and many houses had collapsed within seconds, instantly killing hundreds of men, women, and children.

Amazingly, the entire community of Kuta gathered food supplies and donations together to help those in the North. But when my friends and I delivered everything that we collected to some of the villages, it was like visiting a war-torn country.

The homes of entire communities had been flattened, make-shift tents had been hurriedly put together so that an entire commune of people could survive without the safety of their house. We saw women gathered together in groups to help take care of orphaned children, preparing huge quantities of plain white rice to feed the hungry.

More than 350 aftershocks hit the island in the following days, which served as a harsh reminder of the trauma that everyone had just gone through. More than 250 people were reported to have been killed, but the numbers seemed to be higher when we talked with locals.

We were introduced to a beautiful 2-year-old Indonesian baby. Her life had been saved by her mother, who had thrown her baby out of the window of their family home as it collapsed, instantly killing her.

Everyone I spoke with told me that they had lost friends, relatives, lovers, children, or close friends. Entire villages had instantly been demolished, lives had been lost, and in a community of people who already had barely anything, to begin with, many had been left with absolutely nothing.

One of the most distressing moments came when we met with some of the first-responders who were building temporary shelters. They introduced us to a beautiful 2-year-old Indonesian baby. Her life had been saved by her mother, who had thrown her baby out of the window of their family home as it collapsed, instantly killing her. It broke my heart to know that this tiny child had been left alone in the world without anyone to take care of her. Though the local community took her in, I still think of that baby and wonder how she's doing.

Eventually, after two months of helping as much as I could, I had to go home to try to heal from the experience. I had spent so long trying to get help for those in the North that I had ignored my own trauma. No matter where you had been on the island when the earthquake struck, there was no escaping the after-effects because any monumental natural occurrence that is out of your control serves as a great reminder of how vulnerable we really are as humans.

When it comes down to it, if a big earthquake occurs—anyone there at the time is at the mercy of mother nature. I had to come to terms with the fact that I had faced down my own mortality and seen, in person, the devastation a natural disaster can wreak.

Lombok, earthquake, survival
Stephanie Conway was travelling in Lombok, Indonesia when an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter Scale hit the island. Living through the experience caused her to change the course of her life. Stephanie Conway

Something significantly shifted inside me that day. I realised life itself can be taken from you in one swift moment. Small superficial things that once would have sent me into a spin—embarrassing past memories or worrying about others' opinions—didn't seem so important anymore.

So I removed everything in my life that wasn't necessary. I stripped down my belongings and culled my friendships to just those who were truly important. I realised that being tied to a desk working to fulfil someone else's dream wasn't what I wanted.

So I quit my job and started my own freelance business so that I could work from anywhere in the world. I then bought a plane ticket back to South East Asia and made a promise to myself in that moment that I would always live a full life that I could be proud of.

Almost two years have passed, and I'm still working remotely and living where I choose—places like Bali and Switzerland. I've been back to Lombok several times—much of the damage in the North has been repaired and life, compared to those devastating weeks after the earthquake, has moved back towards normality.

Though I still have moments of panic every now and then when I feel the earth move—it's a constant reminder of how lucky I am to still be here and to have the opportunities that I have to be safe and healthy. I have lived through an experience that opened my eyes and showed me how fragile and valuable life really is.

Stephanie Conway is an English writer who spent a decade in Los Angeles before becoming a digital nomad. She is originally from Cumbria, England and is the founder of Symphony VA, which provides marketing and public relations services for entrepreneurs and small business owners. Her Instagram is @stphxniec.

All views expressed in this piece are the writer's own.