This memoir of a Canadian consulting engineer follows a lifetime planning new ports and transportation systems at a time of explosive growth in BC's infrastructures during the glory days of Premier W. A. C. Bennett and the Hon. Phil Gaglardi. The book also contains anecdotes from the author's work on four continents and from his early working forays behind the Communist Iron Curtain. The book concludes with a review of the highs and lows of a fascinating career, which rarely contained a dull moment.
After a busy day in the humid air of Guatemala's coastal lowlands, sleep came easily and I was therefore surprised to suddenly find myself awake in the middle of the night. The thing I heard was a dull roar which grew louder and louder - a bit like an express train emerging from the mouth of a tunnel. At the same time, the bed began to oscillate on its springs, making it impossible for me to get out of it, had I wanted to. Suddenly, the hall light outside my door went out, leaving the room in inky darkness. Even though I could see nothing, I could feel the bed beginning to move around the room; bits of something (which turned out to be ceiling plaster) began to fall on the bed. The air was suddenly full of the sound of smashing glass and of things crashing to the ground in the pitch blackness. I remember thinking to myself "If this is my time to go, I am glad it is going to be in a nice, warm, comfortable bed!" Slowly, after what seemed like minutes but was actually only some 30 seconds, the noise died away. For a brief moment a deathly hush prevailed, followed by shouts and voices calling out in the darkness. Acting on instinct alone, I was out of the bed; my groping hands found pants and footwear in the blackness. Pants were pulled on over my pyjamas and further groping found a jacket, before I started to feel my way in the direction of the door into the hotel corridor. I was halfway to the door when my engineering instincts kicked in. Playing "blind man's buff" once again, I grabbed the bottle of Halezone water purification tablets from the night stand; all I could think of was that finding uncontaminated water might be a problem! As I felt for the door handle, to my indignant surprise my forehead cracked into an unexpected door jamb. The door lock had sprung under the distortion of the frame and, in the darkness, the previously locked door had swung partially open. As I emerged into the corridor, stumbling over bits of plaster and broken stone, I heard the voice of one of the members of our group calling my name. At the same time, someone struck a match and, in its transitory flame, I could see that despite the rubble, the building still seemed to be standing. Together, we all felt our way toward the lobby and the exit to the street, assisted by the flare of the occasional match. In today's world, it seems hard to believe that whatever hotel staff were on night duty that evening were without a flashlight or even a candle. The handful of guests who emerged onto the street, half-dressed or wrapped in blankets, were bewildered, all wondering what to do next. Suddenly, the first after-shock sent us all staggering and elicited a chorus of screams from the women guests. We could see that the street itself was full of broken glass, bricks and fragments of masonry. Our small engineer group were still debating whether to stay outside, where we were obviously at risk from falling debris in any new after-shock, or whether to go back inside, when a figure hurried across the street. Although in civilian clothes, he assured us he was a detective from the police station located across the street from the hotel. His air of authority gave him added credibility. Our Spanish-speaking colleagues explained that he was telling us to go to the end of the block, where there was a single-storey building with a small open yard in front. We should wait there to be safe from falling debris, as there were likely to be more after-shocks. It was good advice and we all took it. As the whole group made its way to this small sanctuary, I could for the first time hear voices among our native companions. "Hay muertos! Creo muchos muertos!" Word had already arrived that people were known to be dead and that there were likely to be many more. During the next two or three hours, we all stood, huddled in our variety of makeshift clothing, as the after-shocks came at roughly ten minute intervals. Each time there would be the sound of falling rubble and glass from the streets around us. From all over the city, the sound of emergency sirens rose and fell. Fire trucks and ambulances raced through the debris-filled streets. It wasn't long before one could hear the clattering sound of steel rims on pavement as the shattered glass tore tires to shreds. Private vehicles, filled with whole families heading to the countryside, began to appear and some stopped to pick-up friends or relatives from among our group of hotel guests, each time with verbal reports of more deaths, especially in the older and poorer sections of the city. Finally, around 5:00 a.m., the few cold and shivering members of our small engineering group decided we were going back to our beds in the hotel. After-shocks were coming at increasingly longer intervals and we decided it was better to risk dying in another shake than to risk dying of pneumonia in the cold night air. It was well past daybreak when I awakened, having barely stirred through two or three after-shocks. A pale grey light now penetrated the previously dark windows; presumably whatever used to cover the interior courtyard was no longer there. After sorting out the mess of scattered clothing and dressing myself, it was time to try the water taps in the washbasin. Only a tiny trickle of dirty grey water emerged and then nothing but a slight gurgling sound. It was time to join the other hotel guests congregating in the lobby, and time to try to decide what to do next.
Frank Leighton was born in England and emigrated to Canada following World War II. "Plans, Ports and Politics" contains anecdotes from half a century of consulting engineering in Canada and around the world from a base in Vancouver, British Columbia.