January 19, 2004 12:00 PM

Around 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 26 a catastrophic earthquake struck the ancient city of Bam in Iran. Among the victims of the devastation, which left more than 30,000 dead, was Adele Freedman, 39, a lawyer from San Francisco, who was visiting with her boyfriend, Tobb Dell’Oro, 41, a marketing consultant. She described her experience to PEOPLE’s Thomas Erdbrink.

We were staying at a traditional guesthouse in the middle of the city. During the night I heard a loud sound. It wasn’t a bang, it wasn’t a crack. Tobb told me to get up-he was walking toward me. Then everything collapsed on top of us. Something hit my ankle and broke it and I got buried under the rubble. There was dust everywhere and rocks and dirt on top of me. I had trouble breathing. “Tobb! Are you okay?” I shouted. “Adele, help me!” he said. I never thought he would ever ask me for help.

Tobb was one of the smartest men I ever met. We both went to Cornell, but our paths never crossed. “You probably would’ve thought I was a nerd,” he would always say. We first met at a party outside San Francisco five years ago. Several weeks later I was diagnosed with cancer. On the first date I told him I’d had major surgery, but I didn’t tell him about my disease. I was skinny, undergoing chemotherapy and wearing a wig. Who wants to date someone who might be dying? But a month later, when I began radiation therapy, I couldn’t hide it anymore. I told him everything. Tobb didn’t mind. He stayed with me through the whole ordeal.

Recently we moved into a big house in Redwood City, Calif. We wanted to start a family. Because of my previous illness it was very difficult for us to have children, and we started researching the subject of egg implantation. If it couldn’t be my child, at least it could be his.

We shared a passion for traveling, always outside the U.S., because we loved seeing other cultures and meeting other people. Iran was different and new. Initially I had some reservations, but Tobb really wanted to go. He had grown up in Saudi Arabia, where his father was in the oil business.

Eventually I agreed. We really wanted to spend one night in the desert-oasis town of Bam. Our tour guide Farzaneh Khademi had arranged for a hotel 15 minutes outside of town, but we wanted to be in the center. That’s how we ended up at the guesthouse. As for the old city itself, it was like time had stood still from 2,000 years earlier. We walked around, sat in a teahouse and took lots of pictures. As we sat there we saw the sun go down. At that moment Tobb asked me to marry him. The mud houses basked in the red sunset. It was the perfect moment. Of course I said yes.

That night the quake hit. We lay under the rubble for about an hour. We could touch each other’s fingers if we really stretched out. I’d always dreamed of an engagement ring. “I’ll get you the biggest one,” Tobb told me as we lay there. Finally we heard voices above. It was Farzaneh, the tour guide, who had made her way into the town to help us. Tobb told Farzaneh to get me first because I couldn’t breathe. She started digging with her bare hands and then got some men to join her. After they pulled us from the rubble, they got Tobb out onto the street. I couldn’t see that he was bleeding from a hole above his heart.

We started driving at high speed to the city of Kerman, about three hours from Bam. At one point I looked back at Tobb and saw blood everywhere. “Tobb, stay with me! Don’t leave me!” I screamed. After surviving cancer, I thought that if you had enough willpower you could survive anything. I think he blinked with his eyes after I called his name. By the time we arrived at the nearest hospital we were separated. Farzaneh told me Tobb was undergoing surgery. She managed to get me on a plane to Teheran and into a great hospital. I was lucky: Aside from scrapes and bruises, all I suffered were a broken ankle, broken foot and some broken toes. The nurses here were wonderful, and dozens of Iranians, perfect strangers, offered to take care of me. Meanwhile I waited for Tobb to come through the door. Everybody told me that he was still alive but that they couldn’t find him. A week later, when my parents arrived, my mother told me the truth: Tobb had died. I started screaming.

There were so many things we could’ve done differently: Other hotels didn’t collapse; the room we first wanted was still intact. And if only he hadn’t walked toward me, maybe he would still be alive. I feel so stupid crying about my loss when all those people have died. We’re just a small part of a terrible tragedy. I don’t want to drown in self-pity, but I feel so alone right now.

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