“A Miracle From God”: One Mother’s Tale Of Surviving Ecuador’s Devastating Earthquake

On April 16, 2016, Ecuador suffered a devastating magnitude 7.8 earthquake that toppled buildings, destroyed roads, and killed more than 650 people. This is the story of Yajaira Altafulla, a mother who was left homeless only hours after giving birth to her newborn daughter — who she named Milagro, or "Miracle." This is Altafulla's story, as told to UNICEF and shared with Refinery29 — it has been edited for clarity. The views expressed here are her own.
When the contractions started, my mother walked with me to the health center. It took us one hour to get there. I was in so much pain that I thought I would deliver on the street. By the time we reached the center, I was already in labor. The baby was born at 3:45 a.m. She cried a lot and wanted to nurse. It was only when she latched on that she quieted down and fell asleep. At sunrise, they sent me back home. My whole family was waiting for me there. I was very moved. They hadn't all come to visit me the day I had my first child. [My daughter] Micaela Guadalupe was a little over a year old when I found out I was pregnant again. I was worried, but happy. I knew my family would support me…My husband and I separated six months ago, and I was determined to move on with my life. I would think about how I would look for a job, finish my university studies, and raise my two babies.
Photo: Courtesy of UNICEF
Yajaira Altafulla and Milagro in the shelter where they live, weeks after the earthquake destroyed their home.
I was in bed with my baby when the first tremor started. My eldest daughter has a hen who was hatching, and I told my dad that the eggs would all break and there would be no chicks. Then the shaking got stronger. I prayed to god to help me. I was in total despair. All the walls around us started falling. I asked my mum to get my other daughter who was with my dad in the next room. Thankfully, he had her in his arms — otherwise a wall would have probably fallen on her. When my mum stood up to get her, a wall did fall on her, and she was hurt. She crawled under the table and lay there half unconscious. I was very worried. My little baby was lying down close to where one of the walls fell. It could have crushed her. It was a blessing that she wasn’t hurt. I could barely move, but I pulled her closer to me. She wasn’t crying, and I kept thinking that something had happened to her. The walls kept crumbling. The light went off. It was terrible. I couldn’t find my shoes. All my family was outside. They were screaming and calling for me to come down. The tide had receded and we were all afraid that a wave would come. I was in no condition to run, but something told me to stand up. My family came back in to check on me. I asked my sister to hold the baby. My brother offered to carry me on his shoulder, but I told him I would be fine.

When we got up the hill, we found the houses flattened. Everyone was running. There were people caught under the rubble.

Yajaira Altafulla
There was a little hill behind our house, and we decided to climb up it to escape any waves. We didn’t realize that a house had fallen down and crushed other houses underneath it. It was dark, thorns were hurting my hands, the shoes I was wearing didn’t fit — but I was worried about my little baby. I kept praying to god to save her. When we got up the hill, we found the houses flattened. Everyone was running. There were people caught under the rubble. We kept going up. The ground was split open. Some put some planks for us to walk over. At some point, a lawyer who knows my mother offered us a ride.
My mother was very worried about big waves coming and wanted us to keep walking to safety. I told her god put us through this. God didn’t tell us this was going to happen. Nobody knew it was going to happen. And a wave would reach us wherever we went. I felt I would rather die there with my daughters close to our house. Someone told us to go to a nearby school.
Photo: Courtesy of UNICEF
This was our destiny. We were paying for other people’s sins. My daughter had just come into this world and didn’t know anything about life. We reached the school and stayed in one of the classrooms. More families kept coming in. There was not a single candle. My little brother had brought a sheet from the house, and my baby and I slept on it right on the floor. I barely slept. There were so many of us in the room that I couldn’t even move. I don’t know what will happen to us next. Schools will reopen in July and we will have to find another place to live, but I don’t know where. My house was completely destroyed. More than anything, I worry about my babies. There is a lot of dust everywhere, which can hurt the little one, and the older one has a cold and diarrhea. There are lots of mosquitoes at night. Here, people asked me what the baby’s name was. I had no idea what to name her at first. Someone suggested Terremoto [Earthquake], and I thought, No way I would name my daughter after an earthquake. Then I thought of the name Milagro [Miracle]. It is, after all, a miracle from god that she’s alive and safe. More than 28,000 people have been left homeless by the earthquake. To find out more about the tragedy and how you can help, visit UNICEF.org.

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