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On aid mission, bay area's bishop feels quake

The prelate was awakened in Indonesia by a temblor that has killed hundreds.

Published March 30, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - The leader of Tampa Bay area Catholics was among the thousands jolted awake Monday by a magnitude 8.7 earthquake that rocked Indonesia.

"There was a loud groaning coming from the building and I didn't know whether I should wait it out in the room or find the emergency exit," said Bishop Robert N. Lynch, head of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, who was in Indonesia as part of a delegation assessing Catholic aid in areas devastated by December's tsunami.

"It lasted for about two minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. I knew it was a big one."

Lynch was in a hotel in Medan, a city on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, about 200 miles from the epicenter, when the quake struck.

"It happened at 11:11 Indonesia time. I had already gone to bed and was sound asleep and felt my bed moving side to side and knew they were having another earthquake," said Lynch, speaking by telephone from his hotel in Chennai, India, where he had just arrived early this morning.

Lynch remained in his fourth-floor room until the building stopped shaking and headed downstairs and to the street through the darkness.

In an e-mail, he said he could hear screams from the streets during the quake.

"Words cannot capture the thoughts one has when the whole building you are in seems so flexible," he wrote. "Without exaggeration, from the fourth floor of the hotel, it seemed the whole building would collapse."

Back home in St. Petersburg, the bishop's staff was concerned.

"We started calling as soon as we started seeing it on CNN," said Vicki Wells Bedard, spokeswoman for the diocese.

They did not hear from Lynch, whose cell phone did not work in Indonesia, until his e-mail the next day.

Lynch is chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services, the international disaster relief organization of Catholic bishops in the United States. Catholic Relief Services has committed $150-million to tsunami relief and reconstruction, said Cecile Sorra, the agency's communications associate for Asia and the Middle East.

The St. Petersburg Diocese, which serves 398,702 Catholics in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties, contributed nearly $1-million to the cause.

Lynch said the agency has expanded its aid to include Indonesia's Nias Island, the area most affected by Monday's earthquake.

"We're sending a team of doctors and nurses and supplies to the island tomorrow," Lynch said today, adding that severe thunderstorms had delayed an earlier response.

The bishop said he had been told that 60 to 70 percent of the buildings on the island had been destroyed.

Until Monday's earthquake, relief efforts in Indonesia had been proceeding well, Lynch said.

"The people are not dying of malnutrition or disease or improper sanitation. Reconstruction efforts were well on the way," he said.

Lynch, who arrived in Indonesia last week, will spend the rest of his trip in India as planned and return to the United States Sunday.

[Last modified March 30, 2005, 01:03:17]

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