John and Michele Simourian

The Untold Story: The Earthquake that Shook Armenia, The Relief Effort that Changed the World


By Stephen Kurkjian

PARAMUS, N.J. — John A. Simourian was a legendary athlete at Watertown High School and Harvard College during the mid-1950s and his successes on the football and baseball fields made him one of the most celebrated Armenian-American sports figures in the 20th century.

Yet unbeknownst to everyone except a few close friends, Simourian initiated a relief effort that saved the lives of numerous victims of the devastating earthquake in Armenia in 1988 by reaching out to two players he had met while leading Harvard’s football team 30 years before.

The relief effort, which depended on a secret agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union to succeed, was spurred by an entreaty to Simourian by his wife, Michele, that “we’ve got to do something” hours after learning of the disaster.

Three decades later, the devastating earthquake is a reminder of the horrific events that Armenia and its people has had to endure to survive through history. But a closer look of what followed it, particularly the collapse of Communism and the closer ties between those in the diaspora and the homeland, is also a tribute to the distinctly Armenian characteristic of not only surviving national tragedy but becoming stronger from it.

For Simourian, that journey began the morning after he learned of the earthquake. From his office as president of his family-owned transportation company, he called the chief of one of the country’s largest manufacturers of dialysis equipment, a man whom Simourian had competed against while quarterbacking Harvard’s football team and told him of the crisis.

Vernon R. Loucks, Jr., chairman of Baxter International

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Having seen television images of the devastation, Vernon R. Loucks, Jr., chairman of Baxter International and former end for Yale’s varsity football team, was only too willing to help with a massive relief effort. Baxter would donate more than a million dollars’ worth of modern dialysis equipment — as well as the doctors and technicians to operate them — that was desperately needed in Armenia.

“I consider what we did here perhaps the best thing I ever accomplished in my business career,” said Loucks, now 83. “And the real reason I did it was because of the sense of urgency in John’s voice.”

But Loucks knew that the 20 machines and related equipment needed to get to Armenia immediately or they would do little good to bring medical relief to the earthquake victims. Survivors of collapsed buildings invariably suffer shock, which can lead to fatal kidney damage unless treated with dialysis quickly.

Loucks asked Simourian if he knew anyone in Washington, DC who could cut through the red tape and expedite the transport of the equipment from the United States to Yerevan. Simourian’s next phone call was to the most important person he knew in Washington — US Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, an influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who had been an end on the Harvard University varsity football team that Simourian played for during the 1950s.

Kennedy too had seen the television coverage of the devastation that the earthquake had brought and pledged to Simourian that he would do anything he could do and do it as soon as possible. But, according to Simourian, Kennedy insisted on one condition — that neither Simourian nor Loucks make any mention of Kennedy’s involvement in getting the desperately-needed approvals and permits granted. Simourian — and Loucks — kept that pledge for three decades even though the doors that he helped open for them were monumental and their impact both life-saving and long-lasting for Armenia.

The late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

Kennedy’s official papers cataloguing his work in the Senate have yet to be made public so documenting the actual steps he might have taken to facilitate the Baxter shipment from the United States to Armenia was impossible. However, Kennedy spoke of his commitment to the relief effort a few weeks later when the Soviet Union placed a sudden halt on all relief shipments to Yerevan. At a press conference at Boston’s Logan Airport where several planes filled with emergency goods had been delayed from taking off, Kennedy said: “It will not only be physical things on that flight but, more deeply, it will be prayers and a sense of loss. This isn’t just one plane. There will be a second plane, and a third plane, and a fourth plane. The American people are resolute, and we are going to continue our efforts for Armenia.”

But by that time the Baxter dialysis machines had already arrived in Yerevan and had been installed and were being used to treat needy victims. How did it get there — by an extraordinary concession to America’s fiercest Cold War adversary. Apparently through Kennedy’s intercession, the Pentagon cleared a Soviet military transport plane to land at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland, the same airfield used by the President’s Air Force One, and take off from there to Yerevan.

At the same time, again apparently through Kennedy’s influence, the US State Department and the Soviet embassy in Washington gave immediate approval to allow Dr. Allan Collins, a Minnesota kidney specialist, and three Baxter engineers and technicians to fly aboard the military transport plane — squeezed in with the 80,000 pounds of dialysis equipment — from Andrews Air Force Base to Yerevan.

“I’ve been around government operations before, but I’d never seen anything like this,” recalled David Walker, a Baxter engineer who helped retrofit the new dialysis machines to make certain they would work once they arrived in Yerevan. “I still can’t believe it happened — loading modern, American healthcare equipment onto a Russian plane on what has to be one of the most secure American military bases there is.”

The flight — which stopped in Newfoundland and Moscow before reaching Armenia — lasted 20 hours. On arrival in Yerevan on December 20, the dialysis machines were immediately placed into the two Yerevan hospitals designated to treat those suffering from kidney damage.

The situation on the ground in Yerevan was near-desperate. According to Dr. James Tattersall, a British doctor who was one of the first medical personnel to rush to Armenia on hearing of the earthquake — arriving in Yerevan only days later — the need for the new kidney dialysis machines was urgent. He estimated that approximately 1,500 people, who had been rescued from collapsed buildings in Spitak and Leninakan (now Gyumri) and rushed to Yerevan for emergency dialysis treatment, died at the hospitals because of the lack of adequate dialysis equipment in operation at the time of the earthquake.

Ultimately, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who cut short a visit to the United States to rush to the earthquake-stricken region, would give official authorization for Armenia to accept humanitarian aid from the United States and the rest of the world. In all, more than 100 countries would respond. But, according to Dr. Sevak Avagyan, then a deputy within the Armenian Ministry of Health, it was the Baxter shipment of dialysis equipment that convinced the Soviet officials that they needed to accept humanitarian assistance from foreign countries.

Loading the Baxter equipment at Andrews Air Force Base

“The only way to save those rescued from collapsed buildings was to get them on dialysis but our equipment was outdated and totally unable to meet the overwhelming demand,” said Avagyan, who is now Executive Director of the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry in Yerevan. “Baxter was one of the first to arrive. They opened the door.”

Thirty years after the devastating earthquake, Simourian, having told only a few close friends about the relief effort over the years, spoke of it again over a recent dinner with Zaven Khanjian, Executive Director/CEO of the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA). Khanjian was so moved by the account, he asked Simourian to allow him to make it public. I was contacted by the AMAA and asked to connect with Simourian. I did and looking as fit and focused when he was earning headlines as a standout athlete at Watertown High School and Harvard, Simourian agreed to tell me the story of the relief mission.


*   *   *

With its epicenter about 55 miles north of Yerevan, the earthquake began at 11:41 in the morning of December 7. The earthquake reached such a force and brought such immediate destruction that many residents believed for a long time that it was not a natural disaster but an underground nuclear explosion that had struck.

Later determined to be the largest ever to hit inside the Soviet republics, the earthquake measured 6.9 on the Richter scale and lasted about 30 seconds. The two Armenian cities closest to the epicenter, Spitak and Leninakan, suffered between 25,000 to 50,000 deaths, and up to 130,000 people were injured.

For Armenia, a country of about 3 million people, the casualty level made the earthquake one of the most devastating national disasters in modern times.

Leninakan was the bigger of the two cities struck, in fact with a population of 200,000 it was Armenia’s second largest in size. Following the quake, the collapse of the buildings was so bad that those who lived there in the past and rushed to the scene to assist, could not recognize their neighborhoods. More than 15,000 of its residents were killed and 75 percent of the city said to be destroyed. Block after block of eight- to ten-story buildings, built during the Soviet regime with inadequate concrete and steel reinforcements, lay in rubble. Even though a Russian military base was located there, it lacked the heavy equipment and cranes needed to move the rubble to search for possible survivors.

Hayk Demoyan

Former head of the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan, Hayk Demoyan was a 15-year-old school boy living with his family in Leninakan at the time. He had gone off to school with his brother that Wednesday morning with the warning of his mother echoing in his ears that she had had a nightmare and that the two boys should be extra careful at school that day.

Demoyan took notes of what happened during the next several days and shared them with me recently. He was in his shop class at 11:40 when the school began shaking, and his instructor immediately knew what was happening.

“He told us that it’s a quake and that we should run,” Demoyan wrote. “That race was the race between life and death. The creaking of the cement stairs, the party leaders’ pictures and the sound of the shattering glass, the screams of the students and teachers, all mixed together, creating a truly hellish reality. The sounds coming from outside were frightening and impossible to forget.”

On arriving home, he found that all members of his immediate family — his parents, brother and sister — had survived. But so many distant relatives had not, including his two cousins who were trapped beneath a building and spoke to rescuers for two days, before they died.

Anahit Harutyunyan was only 5, living with her parents and sister. Now a reporter in Gyumri, she remembered being at her grandmother’s home soon after the earthquake struck. “Everyone was watching the chandelier, not with the expectation of light but to see if it moved,” she wrote in an article published in in Armenia last year.

All the kids in her neighborhood learned to dread the Armenian word for earthquake — Zhazhq — and her lasting memory was standing in her grandmother’s dining room and staring at the chandelier to see if it would sway violently as it had during the earthquake.

The destruction in Spitak was even worse. The city was virtually destroyed in the quake, and a third of its 15,000 residents killed. The roads in and out of the city were rendered impassable and those fortunate enough to be rescued from collapsed structures could not be transported to Yerevan or hospitals outside of the epicenter. It took more than a week for an organized relief effort to mobilize, and in the interim many survivors slept outside in the December cold. Even the city’s main hospital collapsed during the earthquake killing both the patients and medical staff.

“The scale of the destruction drove people crazy, and each person focused on his own family,” said an Armenian professional photographer who arrived at the scene within two hours of the catastrophe. “Those who were at the factory or office, ran home. They were walking over bodies.”

Even though hundreds of relief workers rushed to the scene to assist in the recovery effort, the lack of power tools and heavy equipment hampered their efforts. An Armenian man who was found digging with his fingers and hands was told by a doctor that if he continued to dig that way, he risked amputation. According to the book, Armenia in Crisis: The 1988 Earthquake, the man answered: “What do my hands matter, everything I cherish is under there – my son, my daughter, my wife and my mother.”

For those fortunate enough to be pulled from the rubble, kidney failure was an immediate concern. When a person is trapped under concrete or debris, their blood supply will continue to flow to their brain but not their kidneys and lower extremities. “Crush” is the medical term for the condition and serious kidney damage, even death, can result if the patient is not given dialysis treatment within a matter of days.

John Simourian playing football at Harvard

So, realizing that time was of extreme essence that numerous lives of victims who had been rescued from collapsed buildings hung in the balance, Armenians everywhere began to rally. Only a trickling few in the Diaspora had given much time or money to a Homeland still caught in the Soviet grip but the emergency presented by the earthquake was something different. The horrific impact of the earthquake was being broadcast every day by CNN and the major television networks and it gave rise to countless frantic conversations in numerous homes of Armenians across America and elsewhere.

One of them was at the Lincoln, Mass. home of George and Carolann Najarian, both of whom had been to Armenia in prior years in part to study the condition of public health but once there had joined the growing call for independence for the enclave of Karabakh (Artsakh).

“I don’t think many of the others had even been to Armenia, remember this was still during the Soviet regime, but this was something different — the suffering was on a massive scale and we needed to help,” Carolann Najarian recalled.

While basic emergency supplies such as food, clothes, blankets and children’s goods were foremost on the minds of countless people, a fundraising campaign was outlined among those who met at the Najarians’ home. But soon organizations began to be established to address more deep-seated needs in the country, including the Armenian Children’s Milk Fund, the Fund for Armenian Relief, the Armenian Health Alliance, Kirk Kerkorian’s The Lincy Foundation and, in 1994, Carolyn Mugar’s Armenia Tree Project. The Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA), which had been established in 1918 to provide care and support in numerous other countries for children left orphans by the Genocide, began the Earthquake Orphan Fund and provided care for the first time to children in Armenia.

For certain, the massive humanitarian relief effort did not take care of all of the damage done by the earthquake. At least 2,000 families in Gyumri still live in the tin shanties that provided housing for 40,000 residents immediately after the earthquake. But overall, three decades later, it is inspiring to consider the extraordinary rest of the Soviet Empire – since the earthquake. Public outrage by Armenians toward the shoddy construction of high-rise buildings that had collapsed in the tremors was followed by disgust over the slow and chaotic rescue efforts. Within a year, the Berlin Wall was falling, and Gorbachev was telling all Soviet republics they were free to declare their independence and Armenia was the first to do so, by popular vote in 1990.

But the Simourians could envisage none of those changes as they drove away from the Najarians’ home that night after the earthquake struck.

Michele Simourian recalled recently that with tears flowing down her eyes she looked at her husband, and said, “John, we’ve got to do something.” Then she reminded him of his friendship with Vernon Loucks, his Ivy League football foe. Loucks had risen in the ranks of Baxter Healthcare and taken over as its CEO as well as its Board Chairman the year before, and Michele suggested John call him.

A life-saving mission between two world powers would result from that phone call and remarkably enough it was the product of the respect and trust that two men gained playing football against each other more than 30 years before.

When asked recently about their strongest memory of the other, Simourian and Loucks both remembered the fierce competition each showed during the three varsity football games they played against one another between 1954-1956 — Yale winning two and Harvard one of The Games.

“I remember him because he played end on offense and defense,” Simourian said. “I’m still sore from some of the tackles he made on me.”

And what does Loucks remember about Simourian’s play? “He was a threat on every single play. He wasn’t the biggest guy on their team, but he was the most versatile,” Loucks recalled.

Following their graduations, both served in the military — Loucks as a Marine, and Simourian in the Navy — and after graduating from Harvard Business School at different times both began their successful business careers: Loucks in healthcare and Simourian, with his son, building a trucking company into a national transportation organization, headquartered in Needham, Mass.

Despite his legendary athletic record and successful business career, Simourian says the most important decision he made in his life was to court and marry Michele, now his wife of 56 years. Born in France, Michele met John after coming to Boston and later Simmons College. Long an advocate for Armenian causes and organizations, she has served as a Board member of the AMAA. In addition, she is co-founder with Elizabeth Agbabian of AMAA’s Orphan and Child Care Committee commissioned by the Association.

If the idea for the relief mission began with Michele urging her husband to re-connect with his Ivy League football foe, Loucks credited one of Baxter’s vice presidents, Warren D. (Don) Johnson, with immediately implementing the idea and getting the equipment and engineers ready for flight to Armenia.

Johnson was accustomed to emergency missions. A retired lieutenant general in the US Marine Corps, Johnson had been a fighter pilot during World War II and risen to become chief of staff of the US Strategic Air Command in Omaha and then director of the US Defense Nuclear Agency which was responsible for maintaining the country’s atomic bombs and nuclear testing programs.

Because he had participated in negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union to reduce their nuclear arsenals, Johnson told Simourian he had contacts in Russia whom they could draw on. But echoing what Loucks had told him, Simourian recalled Johnson telling him that they needed someone in Washington who could facilitate getting the Baxter equipment transported from the United States to Yerevan.

That solidified it for Simourian — Kennedy was his only hope. In the early morning hours of December 18, 1988, a little more than 10 days after the earthquake had struck Armenia, the Russian Aeroflot plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base, was quickly loaded with the 80,000 pounds of dialysis equipment and took off.

William Lundeen, another of the three Baxter engineers who helped load the 20 dialysis machines aboard the plane in the pre-dawn dark, says he wasn’t alone in wondering about the perilous nature of the mission he had joined. When he stepped out of a hangar to approach the transport plane, Lundeen recalls coming across a unit of US military commandos all dressed in black, whose commander told him: “We don’t know who’s coming off that plane, and we want to be sure we’re prepared for anything.”

It is evident Johnson too didn’t know what the Baxter engineers and Dr. Collins, the kidney specialist from Minnesota, should expect once they landed in Moscow, the last leg of their flight before reaching Yerevan. In a cable to them, Johnson stressed they should memorize the name and telephone number of Dr. Yevegny Chazov, the top Health Minister in the Kremlin, in case they ran into any trouble.

Several years before, Chazov had joined with the renowned Boston-based cardiologist Dr. Bernard Lown to establish the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and the group was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

Johnson’s cable also listed Norman Stein as a person to contact in case the group ran into any problems while in the Soviet Union. Stein, who had raised money for the anti-nuke organization and traveled to Russia on several previous occasions, recalls advising the Baxter group: “Whatever you do, never leave the medical equipment out of your sight, or it will disappear, and you’ll never see it again.”

On reaching Yerevan, they received a welcoming embrace from the Soviet officials and Armenian medical personnel — a clear measure of how desperate the medical situation had become. Because of the antiquated medical equipment, neither of the two hospitals designated to treat the earthquake victims were able to provide the needed care, and hundreds were dying every day or being sent to Moscow.

The three Baxter engineers went to work immediately outfitting their dialysis machines to the water treatment resources that existed at the two hospitals. By the end of December, the Baxter dialysis machines had been joined by other pieces arriving from West Germany and England and together they were able to meet the critical demand that the earthquake had brought — the doctors were able to provide life-saving kidney dialysis treatment to 400 patients.

Anna Bulgarian, a 14-year-old who had been pulled from a collapsed building, was one of the first to receive treatment from Dr. Collins. She was in a deep sleep when hooked up to the dialysis equipment but within two hours, her eyes opened, and she perked up enough to wave to Lundeen. “That was a real emotional level for everybody because this was the realization of the whole mission,” Lundeen said.

Lundeen and his two colleagues returned to the United States by the end of December but that did not end the Baxter commitment to Armenia — Loucks sent another five technical and medical personnel to replace them. The second team’s job was to continue to treat earthquake victims while working to make sure that Baxter’s dialysis machines became part of Armenia’s commitment to a modernized health care system.

Later that spring, Loucks summoned all of those Baxter employees who had participated in the relief effort to an appreciation dinner at the company’s headquarters in Illinois, and he asked John and Michele Simourian to attend. “I knew we had done something that none of us would ever forget,” Loucks said, “and I wanted to thank John and Michele as representatives of the Armenian people for letting us serve them.”


* Stephen Kurkjian is a retired reporter and editor for The Boston Globe and a founding member of The Globe’s investigative Spotlight Team. He shared in three Pulitzer Prizes as a member and editor of the Spotlight Team. In recent years, Kurkjian authored the non-fiction book MASTER THIEVES, which is regarded as the most authoritative account of the historic and still-unsolved theft of masterpieces from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Kurkjian has also written extensively on the Armenian Genocide and is a Board member of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.

(Reporters Anahit Harutyunyan and Ani Hovhannissyan contributed from Armenia.)

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