Jennifer Montgomery-Lay and her family were in their hotel room in Lombok, Indonesia when the building was rocked by the first of several deadly earthquakes, which would go on to kill more than 130 people across Indonesia’s tourism islands.
Sunday’s earthquake, which sent glass shattering from buildings, injured hundreds and drove thousands of tourists to leave, was the worst on record to hit the holiday island of Lombok at a magnitude of 6.9. Just a week earlier, another quake of magnitude 6.4, rocked the same area, killing 17 people. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the islands have been experiencing aftershocks almost daily since the original quake, usually reaching a magnitude of at least 5.0.
WATCH: As earthquake recovery continues, authorities now look to humanitarian crisis on Lombok Island
“After the quake hit, it was sheer panic at our hotel,” explained Lay, whose family is originally from Maple Ridge, B.C. “A lot of people at our hotel were just frantic. They left right away and bolted to their airport and flights were all booked up within a couple of minutes.”
The Lays, which include Jennifer, her son Brody, her daughter Logan, and her husband Jared, couldn’t pick up and leave right away as everyone else did. Their daughter Logan, 20, suffers from a brain tumour, and they weren’t sure whether she would be able to make the trip.
“We didn’t know what to do, because we have a child with cancer and there are a lot of things that have to be regulated in order for her to be well enough to travel, and one of them is running fluids and food through a tube, which she gets for at least 12 hours a day, and we weren’t able to do that for two days because we had intermittent power outages and evacuations,” Lay explained.
The Lays have been out of Canada for almost six months to date. While travelling has always been an important part of their family life, they decided early this year to pull their son Brody out of school for a “trip around the world” when Logan’s cancer came back for the fourth time in 2016.
After fighting for over 13 years, Lay said in an interview that they hadn’t been able to shrink Logan’s tumour as much as they hoped. She says that she and her husband thought, “If we could get her strong enough to do something really amazing with her and our family before that might not be an option, then we wanted to.”
So, they pulled the kids out of school, decided not to work for the year and took off on a whirlwind adventure through Mexico, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Thailand and eventually Indonesia.
“We’ve been gone since the beginning of this year on a trip around the world — bucket list, I guess you call it,” she said.
As soon as the first quake hit, they contacted and registered with the Canadian consulate, who informed them that there were no resources being offered to help Canadians get off the island at that time.
After weighing their options, and sitting through over 100 aftershocks, the Lays decided to try to catch a ferry to the island of Bali early Wednesday morning, local time. While only about half of those who make it to the boat are able to board, Lay and her husband Jared knew they had to try.
After a two-hour drive to the boat, a six-hour ferry ride and a two-hour drive to their hotel in Bali, the Lays found themselves safe at last, but wondering how they survived such a life-altering experience.
“The morning started off really rough. We were worried that we weren’t going to make it, but we got her on the ferry and we got her here so now she’s hooked up and it could take a couple of days to sort of get her levelled out, and then start our trek back home,” Lay explained.
After “sheer terror and survival for 36 hours straight,” the Lays were finally able to contemplate their journey — wondering why they survived whereas others weren’t so lucky.
“To live through something like that and then walk away from it, and then to put it into perspective with our own situation. We just think, how many times we have been close to death and then, and then back. We were joking this morning that we’re like cats.”
Spokespeople from Indonesia’s disaster mitigation agency continue to look for survivors, and suggest there may be people still alive under the rubble.
“We don’t know for sure how many people are alive under the rubble,” Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster mitigation agency (BNPB) told reporters in Jakarta.
“There are reports … that there are people buried alive. It is a critical time for immediate evacuation,” he added, without giving details.
Rescue teams have described “ghost towns,” or villages that have been completely abandoned in the wake of this tragedy, Matthew Cochrane of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in Geneva on Tuesday.
For those left behind, life has come to a grinding halt. Children aren’t going to school, adults can’t work and stores have all been closed.
“This quake paralyzed everything,” said a traumatized mother of two, 33-year-old Rafikah (full name?), who spoke to the Associated Press under a large blue tent perched on the same field she has slept in with her family since the 7.0 magnitude quake. “Our lives have just stopped.”
Since Sunday’s quake, the number of aftershocks has risen to over 300 and is expected to increase. Officials from Indonesia also expect the death toll to increase.
The Lays however, are heading to Bangkok, and after spending two days there, will be on a flight back home to B.C. Despite a truly terrifying experience, Lay insists she wouldn’t change a thing.
“The feeling of feeling so out of control and helpless is not something that we are strangers to,” she said.
Lay emphasized that despite ending their ’round-the-world adventure “with a bang,” she doesn’t want their final destination to overshadow the amazing experiences they’ve had over the past six months.
“There’s been so many things that we have learned and that we have experienced. This trip, despite all of its challenges — it’s certainly been hard to travel with someone with a life-threatening illness – has almost given us a bit of freedom from our own tragedy.”
Furthermore, the Lay family’s travels are not over. In fact, Lay added, they’re already talking about where they’re going to go next, and they may even find their way back to Lombok someday.
“We can’t change our circumstances – like being on an island that’s rocked with an earthquake – but we can change the way we perceive tragedy,” she concluded.
— With a file from the Associated Press.