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This Gulf of Fire

The Destruction of Lisbon

Mark Molesky

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Three earthquakes in quick succession. The first brought down roofs, and then the unbalanced walls. People ran into the street, only to be crushed by falling masonry.

Lisbon built on a medieval landfill, originally an estuary fed by two small streams. So the baxia and the Rosso, in particular, sat on sandy soil which quickly liquified.

Twenty minutes after the earthquake, 3 tsunami waves. These were so unknown that Euro languages had no name for them. The waves washed away hundreds who had run to the open ground along the river, and destroyed quays and warehouses, but did not penetrate far into the city.

But many small villages along the west side of Iberian peninsula were completely washed away. The waves reached Cadiz 80 minutes after the first quake, coinciding with high tide, washing away several hundred people.

French savant Louis Godin was the first to calculate the speed these waves were travelling. A ship's captain off the coast of Venuezala recorded the first shock at 9:15am, 520 miles west of Cadiz. The tsunami reached Cadiz 70 minutes later, which meant it was travelling at 410 mph. (Although we now know they travel even faster than that so probably the ship's time was off by 15 minutes)

Then came the fire. On the holy day there were thousands of candles and oil lamps burning in churches. When the churches fell, an avalanche of debris collapsed on top of the flames. And, in houses, housewives were busy preparing the feast meals. Lisbon never had a civic fire service, but wd have made little difference as just about everything caught fire at once. The shell-shocked citizens were in no shape to make any effort to put out the flames.So just about everything caught fire at once. The heat from the flames took hot embers into the sky, and scattered them in other parts of the city. By late afternoon, it was a firestorm.

Many people were trapped beneath rubble, vainly calling for help. They were burnt alive. The main fires lasted for perhaps ten days, but small fires continued to burn for six weeks.

The earthquake benefitted one sector - the walls of the city prisons fell down and the criminals escaped. For several days they roamed the shattered city without check, looting and killing.

When they rebuilt Lisbon, planners insisted on wide avenues that wd not be blocked by collapsing buildings. Buildings were built with a new design - enclosed in a wooden cage with diagonal beams to absorb earthquake vibrations. Ground floors were built of stone, not wood, and each house had a cistern to fight fire.

Shattering effect on Euro intellectuals. Led by Voltaire they had seen the progress of the C18 as a sign that a benevolent God was guiding humanity towards a better life. Now, in an instant, hundreds of thousands of people had been killed or ruined, and on a holy day, to boot.

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