The earthquake came without warning.
On April 16, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Ecuador about 100 miles west of its capital city of Quito. The quake’s effects were devastating: the country sustained more than $3 billion in damage. More than 16,600 people have been injured; at least 650 people have died. Many more remain missing, presumably buried in the rubble.
As with many international disasters, the deadly quake got little coverage in the American media. But for Michelle Bruzzese, a photographer who often works with PEOPLE, the tragedy hit close to home.
Her dad, Kevin Bruzzese, had just celebrated his 66th birthday at his vacation home in Ecuador, where he was staying with his wife, Mary. He was in the area affected by the quake.
“He was on a Skype call with his brother in Connecticut,” Bruzzese says. “And then the line went dead. A half hour later, we saw the news that an earthquake had hit.”
“A little while later, Mary’s children reached out to me,” Bruzzese recalls. “They were getting very worried. So Mary’s son went to the house on his own, and he was digging in the rubble with his bare hands. He found his mother’s body.”
When the quake struck, the mountain behind the house broke apart, and boulders and debris landed on the two-story home. “It looked like a mound of sand,” says Bruzzese.
Days after the quake, Bruzzese and her sister, Ingrid, got the terrible news: her father’s body had been found. Michelle Bruzzese had to identify a photograph of a tattoo on her father’s arm.
The sudden loss was devastating to the Bruzzese sisters. “We were daddy’s girls,” Michelle explains. “The medical examiner told me he had that he had a lot of blunt force trauma to the head, so he likely didn’t suffer too much. I’m trying to find comfort in that.”
Another source of comfort: her father had been happy. “He loved to travel, and he especially loved Ecuador,” says Bruzzese He was able to live the life he wanted there. Financially, he could do all the things that made him happy – living off the land, growing things, being surrounded by animals. He was living the life he wanted to live.”
As the Bruzzese family grieves, they also have a message they want everyone to know. “People don’t know that an earthquake even happened,” says Michelle Bruzzese. “And Ecuador is a country that needs help right now. My father would want everyone to do what they can to help them.”
“This isn’t just about my father,” she says. “This is about a country that has been devastated and needs people to help them.”