Costa Rica April 1991


225 km (140 miles) NE of San José, Costa Rica

Magnitude & Depth

7.7M & 10.0 kilometers (6.2 miles)

Team Deployment

15 member rescue team

On the 23rd April 1991 IRC responded to a request made by the Costa Rican Comisión Nacional de Emergencias following an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale.

The earthquake struck at about 2157hrs and the first information received gave accounts of casualties and widespread damage in and around the town of Puerto Limon and into the interior.


A fifteen member team were in Costa Rica within 26 hours after the first earth tremor and from arriving in the capital of San Jose were then moved by air into Limon.
This was to be a mission which from the start broke all records in ensuring the team reached the area of the disaster as quickly as possible.
Our fight to Miami was uneventful and the change at Miami went without a hitch, mostly due to the Pan-Am staff. Within an hour we were on our way.
Upon our arrival in Costa Rica we were met by officials from the Comisión Nacional de Emergencias and the British Ambassador.
Arrangements were made for a briefing, press conference, accommodation and our onward transport.
Helicopter used by team to travel to remote area. This aircraft had to make an emergency landing due to engine failure when both fuel pumps stopped working. Two IRC members, Nigel Borrell and Willie McMartin were on board and two crew. No one was injured.

International Hotel

Sat Comms in position in Limon Airport

An oil recycling tank that caught fire and exploded.

Relief assessments and medivac operations were also undertaken by the team whilst being deployed, using the Nicaraguan helicopters, which in turn came under UN control.

Due to the teams’ involvement in the field assessment, the Costa Ricans requested that IRC leave a contingent of 4 members to complete the task which also covered logistics and distribution.

It was clear very soon after our arrival at Limon that rescue work would be minimal, although we could assist in other ways:-

The mainstay of the air support at the outset was provided by the Nicaraguan Air Force. The team was helicoptered directly into the airport at Limon. Base camp was established at Limon Airport and within 10 minutes of arrival 2 teams were deployed to two different sites that were identified by the emergency committee. The first site was La-Bamba (landslide) and the second was the International Hotel in Limon.

Teams of four members were sent to each location and worked for many hours at each site. The remaining members set up Base Camp and established a satellite communications system and contact made with IRC operational headquarters.

Damaged hotel in Limon. One dead male recovered.

Any vital information could be transmitted using either the telephone, telex or facsimile facilities available on the Sat.Comm. The facility was also made available to and was used by the Costa Ricans, the United Nations representative in the location, representatives from the Swiss Dog Team and the local Red Cross.

At the International Hotel in Limon it was reported that one person was missing within the collapsed hotel. The team established that the man was dead and assisted in the recovery of the body.

At La Bamba it was found that there had been a landslide just outside the village and that one lady and two children were buried under the slip. It was established that they had not survived and the local population was advised that, due to the danger of further slippage, no further work should be carried out until a full civil engineering project could be mounted. This advice was proved to be correct when twenty four hours later a further landslide occurred.

Team members tend a local on the flight back to the capital. Keith Underwood, Dave Maddock and Willie McMartin.
  • Medical help when required.
  • Communications
  • Needs assessment
  • General advice

Now that the rescue phase was over, control passed to the Minister of Agriculture and the Red Cross. At a meeting with all parties involved it was decided to move the team back to San José and stay available until Monday morning because of the risk of further incidents developing through changes in the weather conditions (the weather changed from hot and humid to tropical rain). This move was arranged and confirmed to the UK. On the flight to San José, medical help was provided to civilians during transit. At San Jose we were met by officials from Comisión Nacional de Emergencias and taken to meet their President. Accommodation was arranged by the Embassy and we were taken there. The journey home was uneventful.

The Team

William McMartin – Team Leader
James Reynolds
Hugh McMillan
Harry Leefe
Nigel Borrell
Mark Aldridge
David Maddock
John Howman

Keith Underwood
Barry Sessions
Bryan Kirby
Ray Harcourt
Paul Wooster
John Miller
Alexander Sinuks

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