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An Unforgettable Jamaican Disaster Revealed Brave New World for Visitor

VACATION MEMORIES. This is one of a continuing series on Memorable Vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel Section.

September 24, 1989|MARTIE STERLING | Sterling is a free-lance writer living in Aspen, Colo.

MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — A little more than a year ago, on Sept. 12, 1988, this island paradise in the sun was about to be leveled.

Under any kind of duress, it seems, Jamaicans will assure you, "No problem, no problem." Now, suddenly, there was a problem: a monstrous, lopsided ogre called Hurricane Gilbert.

I am a writer who travels, and I live by Paul Theroux's credo: "Only a fool lets his vacation be spoiled by rain." But nothing had prepared me for the terror of a hurricane.

The day before Gilbert struck Jamaica, I walked the long, white beaches of Negril, 40 miles southwest of Montego Bay. Sand dipped into sea in a warm embrace as bathers basked in an endless summer.

By the next morning, blue skies had turned a dull, mud-hen brown; turquoise waters had faded to a poisonous green, and I was galloping nose-to-nose with Gilbert toward the fortress-like Wyndham Hotel on Montego Bay.

As I drove at gale-force speed, waves crashed around my small car and coconuts thunked on the road like shrapnel.

At the Wyndham, vacationers from Europe, South America, Canada and the United States jammed lobbies, convention quarters and the 500 guest rooms. Many were evacuees from other Montego Bay resorts. Some had fled there from Ocho Rios, 60 miles east. The hotel was a boiling camp of refugees.

By that time only a skeleton staff remained. Manager Andrew HeLal hadn't even tried to deter his people from racing home to their families, and fewer than 100 of 600 employees were on hand. Those who stayed would, in the next days, work as many as 10 shifts without a break.

At 3 p.m., when the lobby windows began rattling from flying debris, I finally scurried to my fourth-floor room. With the help of a burly car dealer from Amarillo, Tex., I heaved my mattress in front of glass balcony doors and fortified it with patio furniture. The sky was darker than a mine shaft. Shotgun sprays of rocks rained against the windows. My bed shook like an old man with ague.

Suddenly, as I watched, a wall crack widened and crumbled. Without a backward look I hurtled into the hallway to find guests and luggage piled in pyramids of despair.

From 4 to 5:30, Gilbert gave us everything he had. The airport anemometer registered winds to a staggering 150 m.p.h., then blew into infinity. Although old hurricane hands promised a lull during the passing of the quiet "center," we never experienced any period of calm.

Cyclops Eye

The ugly Cyclops eye proved to be only a minuscule eight nautical miles across. By 9:30 p.m. everyone took deep breaths of hope. The winds had finally bolted out to sea.

Stunned and silent, like mourners at a funeral, crowds passed by the devastated lobby. Beach cabanas hung from the hotel atrium. Layers of pulverized glass crunched like potato chips underfoot.

Furniture, plants and draperies lay on heaps of twisted carpet as if balled together by giant fists. Corrugated shanty roofs, tree limbs, shards of structural steel, small sailboats and tons of produce had flown through the air like a mess of spilled slumgullion stew.

Strangers clutched each other in disbelief. A burly athlete cried into a pillow. Down in the Junkanoo Bar, the crowd swilled pina coladas as fast as the bartenders could pour them.

A London couple, about to be married, marveled that yesterday's biggest concern had been choosing between white and pink wedding flowers. Angelique and George, their own quarters a shambles, would share a room with honeymooners from Rochester, N.Y., for the remainder of the week.

And up in Room 768 a gray-haired, bespectacled man named David Porter, from Hope, N.J., proved to have a prophetic birthplace. A satellite engineer with AT&T in Montego Bay and a ham radio operator, Porter had lived at the Wyndham since June. From his room he'd tracked Gilbert's path for weeks.

Massive Explosion

After days at his set, with Gilbert then raging on all sides, he decided to dash out for a quick beer. Near the elevator he heard a massive explosion from his quarters.

With the help of four security men, Porter forced his door against tearing winds. The walls to adjoining rooms and to the outside had vanished! He leaped for his ham radio equipment as it was being sucked into the storm. Within minutes Porter and the guards had strung a wire to a nearby palm tree. He was on the air again.

For 14 hours Porter would be Jamaica's sole link with the outside world. Room 768 would become like a command post in a small war. Among those on hand to assist Porter was Steve McKay, a British Airways purser from Glasgow. McKay had done a bit of police dispatching, and could send and receive.

Everyone wishing to get word to families was welcomed. Messages went out to India, Austria, Brazil and England, to Dallas, Toronto, Boston and Los Angeles: "All safe here. Please don't worry."

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