WASHINGTON — On December 7, 1988, after learning about the earthquake in Armenia, then leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev interrupted his visit to the United States to fly back to the USSR. Gorbachev informed his American counterpart Ronald Reagan about the disaster at his farewell lunch in Newark, NJ.
“The earthquake was severe. There are many losses of lives, many causalities. I have been told that one village just disappeared,” Gorbachev stated, perhaps meaning the destruction of the town of Spitak. The Soviet leader added that he had just sent a telegram to the people of Armenia.
“Are there any estimates on the number of lives lost?”, asked Vice President George Bush. The latter was present at lunch together with Secretary of State George Schultz and President Reagan’s National Security Adviser Colin Powell. “Not yet,” Gorbachev replied, offering his assumption that the toll should be around hundreds.
The video recording of the event shows that President Reagan was shocked to learn that an entire settlement was wiped out. “If a village just disappeared, the number must be high,” Secretary of State Schultz added. As it would later be known, according to various estimates the final statistics of the death reached 38.000.
Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Library has made several public videos of the president’s statements on the disastrous quake in Armenia: his December 7 lunch with Gorbachev, the meeting with the US rescue officers who flew to Armenia, and the Christmas address highlight the Armenian earthquake.
“The last two weeks, the hearts of the Americans have gone out to the people of Armenia,” President Reagan said when he met the rescue professionals. “Rescue workers and medical teams from across the country flew to the Soviet Union, where you searched to the living and gave care to those injured. Ladies and Gentlemen, thanks to people like you, the Armenians did not have to face this disaster alone,” he added.