7th November 2014 Sofia, Bulgaria

My Most Vivid Memory from Sofia

by Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson was Administration Officer at British Embassy Sofia in the late 1970s.

British Ambassador's Residence in Sofia in the 1970s – a view from the garden
British Ambassador’s Residence in Sofia in the 1970s – view from the garden

It was at 9.20pm on 4 March 1977 that the Bucharest earthquake was felt in Sofia. At the time I was the Administration Officer at the British Embassy in Sofia accompanied by my wife, Anne, and five year old son, Alexander. On that particular Friday evening it was my turn to be barman at the Embassy Club which was in the basement of the Ambassador’s Residence. At 9.20pm I was getting a whisky from the optic for Sheila Hardy’s whisky mac when the floor began to ripple. As the rippling effect increased the room began to sway from side to side. At the same time the lights went out plunging the Club into total darkness. As the shaking continued all that could be heard was the clanging of pewter and glass tankards hanging above the bar as they swung on their hooks knocking into each other. Even though I had never experienced an earthquake I realised that this was one and wondered whether I should try to get under the counter for safety should the ceiling come down – in a flash I dismissed this notion thinking that if the ceiling did not come down I would look a bit silly when the earthquake stopped. All this happened in seconds and the first person to speak was Ilid Evans, one of our Security Officers, who said, “Don’t worry it’s only a little earthquake. There’s a torch in the drawer under the counter Mike – can you find it?” I found the drawer but was unable to feel any torch. “I can’t find it”, I said in what I thought was in a rather high and shaky voice so that I repeated it in a more manly tone. After what seemed an eternity the shaking stopped and we all made our way out of the Club, up the stairs into the garden behind the Residence. Mike Corbett, showing a good presence of mind, had brought up a couple of bottles from the Club and after a short nip we all set out for our respective flats to check on our families.

I lived in one of the two Joliot Curie blocks of flats on the eighth floor. Arriving back home the lights were back on and I found Anne and Alexander safe and sound. Anne said that when the earthquake had started the lights had gone out and many of the residents of the block had ran down the stairs in a state of panic. Anne had rushed from the lounge down the short corridor between the two bedrooms to collect Alexander. As she made her way down the corridor she had been bumped from side to side against the walls, such was the movement of the building. Quickly we made our way back to the Club in the Residence where all the staff and their families had gathered. I took up my duties as barman and that night we did a roaring trade – brandy seemed to be particularly popular. The Defence Attache’s wife thought that the drinks should be free but I was having none of that. I suppose it was after an hour or so that we learned that the epicentre had been Bucharest. After closing the Club when we had all regaled each other with our tales we returned to Joliot Curie to find that the plaster on the walls in our flat had cracked in several places and that several ornaments had fallen down but otherwise there was no other apparent damage.

During the days that followed there were several minor shocks the worst being a few days later when Alexander awoke during the night saying there was someone under his bed shaking it. “Don’t worry son”, I said, “it’s only a little earthquake. Go back to sleep”. What was one to do on the eighth floor?

The following year we experienced minor shakes during the 1978 Thessaloniki earthquake but that is another story.

I should like to dedicate this reminiscence to my ex-Sofia colleagues who are no longer with us – Neville Holland, Mike Corbett, Bernard Hardy, Ruth and Ilid Evans, Derby Allen, Vic Greetham, John Gray, Molli Cloake, Graeme Gibson and my wife, Anne Johnson.