Today I felt the whole world tremble.
I never thought I would experience an earthquake. I know for many people it is something that is viewed as the cost of doing business, but I live in Toronto, which doesn’t see a lot of seismic activity. What little we do get –the ‘pop back’ from the ground rising up after being depressed by glaciers that disappeared ten thousand years ago– only occurs once every decade or two, and it generally goes unnoticed except by the sensitive equipment of scientists who monitor such things. That wasn’t the case today, though. For fifteen or twenty seconds, everything noticeably trembled.
The 5.0-magnitude earthquake’s epicentre was hundreds of kilometers away, and nineteen kilometers under ground, but I felt it as a distinct and unsettling vibration, a tremor that I first mistook for some piece of heavy machinery at one of the three different condo building sites that surrounds my office just north of Bay and Bloor. It didn’t make sense, though: No truck could sustain that kind of building-wide vibration. I rose from my desk and made eye contact with the woman across the way from me.
“Did you feel that?” She asked.
“Yes,” I said, elaborating on my theory. Someone else on the floor said it was an earthquake, but I didn’t believe that was possible. Not in Toronto. Not for that long. Not that noticable. No way.
People started walking from window to window, checking to see if there was unusual activity at one of the building sites around us, but nothing explained it. My stomach continued to tremble long after my feet told me the vibrations were gone. The thought that the world could be made to shake –the power that it takes to shake the whole world– just seemed so unlikely, so beyond my ken.
I jumped onto my computer, and within two minutes, the Globe & Mail had a bulletin up on their website: It was definitely an earthquake. It had been stronger in Ottawa, and the paper’s newsroom there had been evacuated. Information flowed in via twitter: People had felt it in Montreal, in Windsor, in Ohio. What a thought! I could lay my palm flat on a map of North America, and everything under my palm had been vibrating just moments ago.
One of my co-workers muttered, “I can’t die here…” then at length she returned to work.
I sat at my desk for a long time, consciously aware of my heart beating, trying to wrap my head around what had just happened. I admit, I got very little done over the next couple of hours.
It’s something new to add to my list of strange, unique experiences, and I spent the rest of the day, on and off, quietly contemplating some of the other unlikely events I have witnessed in my life.
On September 3rd, 1989, when I was six years old, I saw a midair collision that resulted in a man’s death. I was sitting on my swingset in my backyard in Etobicoke, the western suburb of Toronto. We lived just a couple of blocks inland from the lake, and the Snowbirds –Canada’s air demonstration team– were performing out over the water. I watched two of the planes touch their wingtips together, and one spiralled away out of view, with a parachute slowly drifting down. I ran into the house to tell my mother what I had seen, but she didn’t believe me until it was on the news that night: The snowbirds fly two-seater Tudor aircraft. I only saw one chute. Captain Shane Antaya died that day when his plane crashed into Lake Ontario. The team commander, Major Dan Dempsey, managed to bail out. I remember it all so clearly. It was a beautiful blue-skied day, and I was wearing a Hawaiian shirt with matching shorts, and a man died.
That’s not the only plane crash I’ve experienced first hand, although I didn’t see the other one. On July 25th, 2000, my father and I were in our hotel just outside Charles de Gaulle Airport when the Concorde crashed during takeoff. A long, thin piece of titanium fell off a plane during an earlier takeoff, and it was waiting on the runway when the Concorde accelerated. It burst one of the plane’s tires, and the shredded rubber went into one of the engines. One hundred and nine people died. All I heard was a distant rumble, and then the sound of sirens as fire trucks and ambulances poured out onto the tarmac. The next day it seemed like half of Paris had driven out to view the wreckage. It took us forever to get out of the hotel, and we were in Dover before we saw what had happened on the front page of a newspaper.
As long as I’m talking about once in a lifetime experiences, when I was a teenager camping in Algonquin Provincial Park I both saw and heard a meteor pass overhead, from the horizon in front of me, all the way to the horizon behind me. It was so low I could hear it sizzle. It was bright, bright like a phosphorous flare. Tiny pieces of it broke off and dwindled and died as it passed overhead in about five seconds. The angle and speed and altitude of it are just so unlikely. I can’t imagine I will ever see that again. Most people go whole lifetimes without seeing that.
Just thinking about the night sky, I have one more: I can remember seeing Halley’s Comet in 1986. I was just a little guy. Maybe four? I remember my father took me out into the front yard one clear night. He crouched down –which is something I can’t recall him ever doing before or since– and then he pointed up at this light in the sky, and he told me I was very lucky to see this thing up there. It only comes once in a lifetime, but because I was so young –if I was very lucky– I might see it again some day. I think that sight is what first got me interested in astronomy, although who knows what really sparks a boy’s imagination? I do remember thinking I would never live to see Halley’s Comet again. I didn’t know anyone who was 79 at the time! Still, I look forward to 2061. If I’m alive to see that comet, I’m going to seek out the youngest person I know. I’m going to take them out on a clear night, crouch down, point up at the sky, and tell them exactly what my father told me. I think I will be very happy doing that…
…I’ve had a lot of unique experiences in my still young life, and now I have an earthquake to add to my collection. What a strange world this is, and how unlikely are the experiences of life.