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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Elliott Yamin's earthquake scare in Chile: In his own words

March 9, 2010 |  6:24 am
Eyamin1 Like many "American Idol" loyalists (and social networking junkies), we were tuned into Twitter during the early morning hours of February 27 when we learned that Season 5's Elliott Yamin had experienced the Chilean earthquake firsthand.

Yamin was performing at the annual Competencia Internacional in Viña del Mar, the largest music festival and competition in Latin America, representing the United States with the song "Rock Around the Clock." He had just been cut from the seminfinals round and tweeted a semi-tirade about the show, which he called an "incredibly huge waste of time." Hours later, a terrified Elliott took it all back as he wrote of "utter chaos on the streets" as an 8.8-magnitude earthquake reverberated from the city of Concepcion, some 200 miles away. With the power out and aftershocks rattling the buildings regularly, Elliott and his fellow performers gathered in the street outside their hotel until morning, after which he became a go-to witness for several American media outlets, such as CNN's "Larry King Live."

Over the next few days, we had intermittent contact with Elliott, who is a diabetic and was traveling with a limited supply of insulin. Assured that he was OK and finding his way home to Los Angeles, we waited until he returned Friday and had a moment to process and reflect upon the experience..

Here, in his own words and pictures, Elliott talks about his harrowing tale, the emotional highs and lows he experienced and the first thing he did when he finally made it back. . . .

Eyamin3 I was in Chile representing America in an international festival with artists from around the world. Viña del Mar is like the Olympics: It’s watched all over Latin America, on every network and practically every channel -- people plan their vacations around it! And I’m learning as I go. This was something my manager signed me up for a year ago and didn’t give me all the details, but I had to honor the contract.

So it was a panel of judges, most of whom are Latin American soap opera stars or singers, and they chose a song for each country to sing. Every night, there's 50,000 or 60,000 people there and my song was “Rock Around the Clock.” I advanced to the first round, then the second, and I got cut in the semifinals. 

To be honest, I wasn't having a good time. It just wasn't my cup of tea, I felt like it was very amateur and that my competing days were over after “American Idol.” I had a blast performing, and, of course, I’ll never phone it in, but I didn’t like the whole scenario. Everything else about the trip was amazing until the earthquake happened. It was the last performance night, I’d been there six days already, and I got back to my hotel room at, like, 2:30 in the morning and was on Twitter talking about how I didn’t like the competition when literally, the Chilean God saw my tweet and the building started shaking. The timing was so ironic.
My room was on the seventh floor and what started off as a subtle sway turned into a pretty violent rumbling. The room was jerking every which way like King Kong had grabbed the building and started shaking it. It started getting crazier and crazier, then I got up, ran to the doorway and started yelling out into the hall.
There was nobody there and I just felt like, I'm way up here and I have to get to the staircase and get out of this building. I stayed up there maybe 60 seconds and then took off running for the staircase. I'm thinking about everybody I love, yelling and basically jumping down whole flights of stairs. The lights were flickering on and off, pictures were falling off the hallway walls, it was really an apocalyptic scene that felt like a movie or an attraction at Universal Studios. It was a really surreal thing to go through. I was running on shaky ground just trying to get away.
In the beginning, I didn’t think anything of sharing my experience on Twitter. My phone happened to be working and we were letting people know that we were OK. It went dead pretty quickly because I was letting people use my phone to call home. Remember, these were musicians from all over the world who'd never experienced an earthquake and were just scared. And I guess in tweeting about what was going on, it played a significant role in the early flow of information in terms of what we were seeing in Chile; because it was 3:20 in the morning on the East Coast. The next thing you know, my phone starts ringing off the hook with requests to talk about what was happening, so rather inadvertently, I turned into a reporter.

Eyamin2 Of course, images of Haiti were still fresh in our minds, and I was just in Angola, the poorest country in Africa for “Idol Gives Back” (see photo, left), but Chile is very well-equipped for earthquakes and there's great infrastructure. In fact, a lot of the search and rescue teams in Haiti came from Chile. But the scary thing is just the unknown. Not knowing how long the quake will last, feeling over 100 aftershocks, some of which were big. The earth never stopped moving under our feet and that’s an unsettling feeling. 

Still, I learned how truly universal the language of music is. Kicking it with all these musicians who share the same passion as me -- Brits, Italians, this really cool French jazz singer, Mexicans, Colombians. … We had these jam sessions huddled outside. And the earthquake brought us that much closer.  
About 13 hours after the quake hit, a whole group of us were bused to Santiago because they had power there and their aftershocks weren’t as severe or happening as frequently. Also, being that we're foreigners and it’s the capital, all of our embassies were there, and we were closer to the airport. They came up with a plan to drive everybody to Mendoza, in Argentina, the closest airport city. It was a 10-hour trip through the Andes on what are called “death roads.” 
The Andes are huge and colossal. It’s like being so close to the San Gabriel Mountains in Pasadena, but so much bigger and taller. I decided to stay in Santiago because I had a good feeling that the airport would open up soon and I didn't feel comfortable being in a bus on a road deemed not the safest. So most of the group went and I stayed for almost six days, pretty much confined to my room in the hotel because I was a bit scared to go anywhere and I wanted to be glued to the announcements.
I had a couple of meltdowns. In the very beginning, I kind of lost it. I called my brother, who deserves a shout-out because a lot of the news agencies were reaching him first. I was just in tears. I couldn't keep it together -- my chest was caved in, I felt like my blood pressure was through the roof and I couldn’t breathe right. I knew it was from the nerves and what I had just been through; it just messed me up.
On the third day we were in Santiago, I had another little meltdown because there were all these angles and possibilities to get us out of there, and every time something felt promising, it fell through. Like we had reached out to the USO who were trying to help and it didn’t work out. Again, it’s the not knowing and, being a diabetic, I was worried about my insulin, so yeah, I lost it.
I wear an insulin pump and I always bring an extra week's worth of supplies, just in case I need more or one of my tubings isn’t working. Going on six days, I was getting kind of low, and not knowing when we were leaving, I got a little nervous and wrote a tweet about it. I just said that I was worried -- that if your blood sugar gets too high, you could go into a coma, but I wasn't tweeting like I was in dire straits. All of a sudden, the media makes it out like I'm buried under rubble and I can't get to my insulin! Perez Hilton made it sound like I was on my deathbed. There were actually people on the ground in Chile helping me out, and I ended up getting more supplies that I never had to use. But just being a diabetic, I kind of freaked.
Eyamin4 I was the first to get a flight out of there, but the airport looked like World War III. From what I understand,  it was remodeled fairly recently, but it got hit pretty hard. Walking in, it looked like a movie scene -- unorganized lines of people, the airlines had makeshift terminals that were basically tents outside, flight information was written on a dry erase board. It was so funny, and also kind of annoying because there were all these impatient Americans there with attitudes. 
I travel so much, and once I'm on the flight, I'm cool, but the whole preamble of being in the airport and how the TSA treats you, no one's ever happy going through that. But having a ticket in my hand and knowing there was a 99.9% chance that I would be going home, it was one time when I was so carefree and happy to be there. 
The Jewish holiday of Purim is about celebrating miracles, which is exactly what that Chile trip was. That none of us got hurt, that we weren't in a devastated area or had to see any crazy ...  and how we made it through this 8.8-magnitude quake and lived to tell about, it truly was a very Purim-like miracle.
When I got back to L.A., I went to Katsuya in Encino. It’s one of my favorite sushi restaurants and I go there once about a week with a group of friends. I was a little inebriated since it was quite the celebration dinner. But it was cool just to be around friends and to share my story. It's good to talk about. It was a crazy, dramatic experience. Even parts of Sunday, I still felt like the ground was moving. And on Saturday, I tried to go see “Alice in Wonderland,” and the noise from the surround sound triggered little things you'll always remember -- what came through the speakers was bringing me back to that earthquake noise. It was weird.
I have a feeling some of this experience will end up in my music. It's not like I'm planning on it, but I'm pretty positive it will come out naturally. It'll definitely inspire me. It already has. I was being a stupid, spoiled American complaining about the festival when the quake struck. And in an instant, I worried if we were actually going to live. How it changed was so abrupt that it makes you think: There's so much more important things in life to be upset about or mad about.
-- As told to Shirley Halperin Idol Tracker

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