South Portland Christian school group returns from quake-ravaged Ecuador

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SOUTH PORTLAND — After surviving a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Ecuador on Saturday, and walking more than four miles to safety, students, staff and volunteers from Greater Portland Christian School are back home, safe and sound. 

The eight students and three adults were in Manta, Ecuador, for a planned 10-day vacation Bible school teaching trip, Headmaster John Bishop said Tuesday. 

Although they were not at the epicenter of the quake, which killed nearly 600 people, the experience was still rattling, said Debora MacDougall, whose husband, Brian, and daughter, Grace, were both on the trip. 

MacDougall, who lives in Standish, said Grace called her immediately after the earthquake, before news outlets began reporting the event. 

“I wasn’t even thinking something bad had happened,” MacDougall said. “It was almost like a shock, that it wasn’t really happening.”

Not until she saw news coverage of how destructive the quake had been did she really start to worry, she said. 

According to her husband, MacDougall said, “it looked like the buildings were rubber flapping in a heavy wind;” people were screaming and struggling to walk on the shaking ground.

And then there was the warning of a possible tsunami. The threat forced the students and adults to evacuate to higher ground, which they did at night, through dangerous and devastated towns and villages.

The students had to travel to Quito, approximately seven hours from Manta, to fly back to Boston on Wednesday. Many turned cell phones off to ration battery power, MacDougall said.

There was at least a day when she didn’t hear from Grace or Brian, she said, but fortunately, updates from school staff and news outlets kept coming.

Despite the stressful situation, Bishop said he was pleased by how understanding and accommodating parents were, despite the limited communication with their children.

“They really were great to work with,” he said. 

At one point, however, MacDougall said she “was getting anxiety wondering what’s going on, (and) at one point I put my phone away because it was too much.” 

MacDougall said she prayed as a way to stop fixating on news of the damage and rising death toll. 

“I didn’t want to see anything more (on television); I just wanted to handle it my way, which was pray and trust God was going to protect them,” she said. 

In hindsight, she said, the ordeal will be a learning experience for how she might feel when her daughter graduates high school and lives independently.

“I think it’s a good eye-opener for (when) Grace will be on her own,” MacDougall said.

MacDougall said she gave Grace $150 before she left on the trip, and she recalled hoping Grace would give the money to someone who needed it. 

As it turned out, one of the families the team was staying with, who had just finished building a new house with most of their savings, was at a grocery when the quake hit. They returned to find their house flattened.

MacDougall later found out Grace had, of her own volition, given the couple all the money she had, which is “exactly what I would have wanted her to do,” MacDougall said. “I was so proud of her.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

Greater Portland Christian School on Broadway in South Portland.

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.