Stephen Kurkjian

Drawing Conclusions Three Decades after Devastation


BELMONT, Mass. — On Thursday, December 13, almost exactly 30 years after the devastation of the earthquake in northern Armenia, some of the people who first responded to that disaster gathered at the First Armenian Church to share an overview of what motivated them as well as the logistics of sending aid to their brothers and sisters so far away.

The program was cosponsored by the First Armenian Church and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) / Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Lecture Series on Contemporary Armenian Issues.

One focus of the evening, the brainchild of retired Boston Globe Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Stephen Kurkjian, was not only the disaster and the response, but the changes that resulted from the collision of the need of the people in Armenia and the immediate response from people around the world, Armenian and non, and how they not only changed relations between Armenia and the diaspora forever, but possibly put the final nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union.

He wrote a lengthy piece about the many firsts that happened as a result of the earthquake aid heading from the US. (See

John and Michele Simourian

The program featured a trio of women who had taken part in organizing the first wave of aid. They were Dr. Carolann Najarian, who had founded Armenian Health Alliance, Elaine Kasparian who cofounded the Armenian Children’s Milk Fund under the aegis of the Armenian Missionary Association of America, and Michele Simourian, who also  headed up the relief projects for the Armenian Missionary Association of America. (Her husband’s involvement at her urging was explored in the second part of the program.)

Remembering Harrowing Times

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An ABC “World News Tonight” report from December 8 opened the program, with the late anchor Peter Jennings narrating the scenes of utter devastation in northern Armenia.

Next, a video was shown of a brief interview between Kurkjian and Hayk Demoyan, the former head of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Museum-Institute in Yerevan.

Demoyan and his family lived in Gyumri and he recalled how his mother warned him and his brother, both of whom were in the same grade, to be careful on December 7 as she had had a bad dream. They walked the 15 minutes to school and took part in the woodworking class when the quake hit.

Hayk Demoyan

“There was a roaring from the earth, like a demon or a huge animal,” he recalled, saying that the room’s glass cabinets shattered and the metal tools clanged against each other, adding to the otherworldly cacophony. He, his brother and the rest of the class made it out with difficulty, he recalled, as the floor was shaking both vertically and horizontally, making progress difficult.

“There were three shakes,” he said. Once they left the building, they looked back to see it had all collapsed.

Even more difficult, he said, was seeing someone on the eighth floor of a nearby apartment building shout for help. As he and other students were looking around to see if someone could help, they looked back at where the building was, but “suddenly the building was gone and you could see blue sky.”

His family was lucky to have all three children and parents survive, but Demoyan added, “you saw death everywhere. It was the first time I saw death up close.”

He got especially emotional when he recalled the death of his young cousins. Their bodies were identified by their shoes and their little fingers were still stained by ink from the day’s lessons.

Aside from the overwhelming sadness of their brethren, he said the citizens of the city and Armenia in general were mourning the loss of the crew of the Yugoslav plane that crashed on its way to deliver aid.

Phone Banks and Disbelief

Kurkjian stressed that the program did not attempt to present all the figures involved with the effort, but “just to catch the conversation that went on by hundreds of people” responding to the tragedy.

Najarian, Kasparian and Michele Simourian each recalled their reactions to hearing about the quake and their desires to help.

Najarian was already involved with Armenia as she had been supporting efforts in Karabakh for independence and helping people there who had been brutalized by the Azeri government in Baku and Sumgait.

In fact, the morning of December 7 she and her husband, George Najarian, had placed a full-page ad in the New York Times promoting Karabakh’s independence from Azeri rule. Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev was in New York and the ad was supposed to get his attention. The morning of December 7, then-Speaker George Keverian of the Massachusetts House also had planned to have a press conference to draw attention to the Azeri pogroms.

But, as Najarian recalled, “everything changed.”

Dr. Carolann Najarian

The press conference instead turned to one about the most intense earthquake to have hit any Soviet republic.

“The need was huge, beyond anything we could have comprehended,” she said.

Boston was home to the first wave of help directed at Armenia. The telephone company brought banks of phones to the Najarians’ home and then to rented offices, for fundraising.

Kasparian, of the Milk Fund, spoke about the help of local medical staff and also the sincere response of many who wanted to help children, many orphaned now, receive nutrition.

“I want to thank all of you. It took a whole community to bring out what we could accomplish,” Kasparian said, adding praise for the Najarians’ leadership.

Michele Simourian spoke about the efforts she coordinated for the Armenian Missionary Association of America. She recalled that the organization’s leader, the late Rev. Movses Janbazian, put out a call to the faithful and asked them to help, after visiting the devastation and seeing for himself the extent of the need. Simourian coordinated with Elizabeth Agbabian on the West Coast, to help children and orphans.

The Armenian groups were supported by an advertising campaign led by Ed Eskandarian of the storied Arnold Communications (later Arnold Worldwide Partners), which “started to blitz for funds.”

According to a story in the Washington Post, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, $26 million was raised in the US from organizations and individual, Armenian and non-Armenian. The Armenian community in the US raised a total of $40 million.

Armenia happened to be in a closed empire behind the Iron Curtain. However, a confluence of powerful friends of the Armenian community in the state, including George Keverian and Sen. Edward Kennedy, were able to break down a lot of barriers. Strange bedfellows in the delivery of aid to Armenia included the notorious arms dealer Sarkis Soghanalian, who lent his plane to Najarian for the delivery of 90,000 pounds of supplies.

Football Friends in High Places

The panel left, and Kurkjian invited John Simourian to sit and tell his story about how he managed to deliver one of the first batches of medical aid to Armenia, with the help of friends Vernon R. Loucks Jr., CEO of Baxter International medical supplies company and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whom he joked was the only Democrat he had ever voted for, ever since they were teammates playing football (badly) on the Harvard team.

With great charm and self-effacement, Simourian recalled how his wife, Michele, urged him to contact his “good friend,” Loucks, to see if he could donate medical supplies. He quipped that he had not seen Loucks since their college days, when Simourian played for Harvard and Loucks for the rival Yale team for four years. They had formed a close friendship and had remained in touch, though they had not succeeded at seeing each other in person.

“I hadn’t seen him since 1957,” he recalled. He had left messages over the years and received and sent letters, but they had never connected, even on the phone.

Once he called Loucks in December 1988, everything changed. “I called him that morning. To my surprise, he picks up the phone,” Simourian recalled.

He was going to ask the Baxter executive to help send medical aid to Armenia and to his surprise, he learned that his old friend had just suggested doing that very thing during a meeting with the company’s executives.

With breathtaking speed, Loucks delivered his report and lined up his donations, letting Simourian know that he would need to find three planes for the delivery of the dialysis machines and 60 visas for the American specialists who would administer the treatments. Loucks said that according to his reports, after an earthquake, dialysis machines are vital.

Visas and planes heading to a Soviet republic were no easy feat, yet another Simourian friend, Kennedy, played a vital role. “Ted and I played football at Harvard,” he said. “We kind of hit it off.”

“I have never voted for a Democrat in my life, with one exception: Ted,” he quipped, drawing chuckles. “I called him and said we need three planes and 60 visas. He asked where do you want the planes?’”

The planes carried $2 million worth of equipment, many in use even today. The 60 Baxter staffers stayed for nine months.

Simourian and his friend Loucks kept in touch after that. When Simourian thanked Loucks for his help, the latter responded, “This was the most important thing I have ever done in my life.”

Kennedy also helped make possible the landing of Soviet military transport planes at Andrews Air Force Base for loading supplies headed to Armenia.

“Ted said, ‘I don’t want to see this [news of the assistance he provided] anywhere.’ I kept it a secret until he died,” John Simourian said.

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