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'A Scene of Utmost Horror and Desolation'

November 06, 2005|From Associated Press

LISBON — On the morning of Saturday, Nov. 1, 1755, the sky above the Portuguese capital "was perfectly serene and clear," a British merchant wrote in a letter home.

Then, about 9:30 a.m., the table he was writing on at his lodgings began to tremble and he heard "a strange, frightful kind of noise underground, resembling the hollow, distant rumbling of thunder."

Next came the devastating first shock of a massive earthquake that left "a scene of utmost horror and desolation."

Lisbon, a major Atlantic trading port and the center of Portugal's intercontinental empire, was largely flattened, with thousands killed and tens of thousands injured in minutes.

The anonymous letter, published by the British Historical Society of Portugal in 1985, is in florid handwriting, presumably written with a quill pen. Apparently intended for a relative, it was unsigned and never sent.

It provides one of the few trusted descriptions of an event that invited exaggeration.

As his building collapsed around him, the dust dimmed the sky and almost choked him, he wrote.

When the air cleared, the British merchant helped a woman with a small child in her arms out of the building and into the street.

Many others in Lisbon who had sought refuge near the water from falling buildings died as a tsunami struck.

He, like most others who could walk, fled the city, where fires burned for six days.

When he went back for his possessions, he couldn't even recognize his street in the wreckage, and the stench of rotting corpses was everywhere.

"This extensive and opulent city is now nothing but a vast heap of ruins," he concluded. "The rich and poor are at present upon a level."

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