Catalina Pelaez Shares Her Experience of Explosion at Club El Nogal

Catalina and Miguel 2
On February 7, 2003, a terrorist bomb exploded at Club El Nogal, Bogota’s leading squash club. Thirty-six people were killed and more than 200 were wounded, including Catalina Pelaez.

It was a normal Friday. I woke up and went to school and then I went to my club to play squash. Around 7pm, my mother came to the club, and we sat down in the sports cafeteria to order dinner. While I was eating my burger, my brother called my mom and asked her if she could pick him up at a park nearby. I told my mom I would stay and finish my food and then they could pick me up on their way back. My mom left the club. I stayed in the cafeteria finishing my food, which I eventually didn’t because I was full. I stood up and asked for the bill.

In that moment I had no idea what happened. Around twenty minutes later I woke up. I was lying down in rubble, fire around and everything destroyed. I thought I was dreaming. I noticed that I was in a parking lot since there were cars on fire nearby. Pieces of concrete kept falling down, and I was able to move my body just enough so they wouldn’t hit me. I tried to get up, but my left shoulder was hurting a lot and my right ankle was just hanging. My mouth was filled with dirt and rocks. The fires were the only lights that were shining in the darkness. I looked up and somehow my squash bag was hanging from a beam next to my friend’s bag, but it was too high up to reach. I was crying. I started to scream for help, but I did not hear any reply. I felt trapped and scared because I just could not get up.

After approximately fifteen minutes, I heard a voice. It was a man and he told me to stay where I was and that he was coming. Finally he found me and picked me up. I couldn’t believe it and I just kept thanking him. Every step he took was a shock of pain for me, but I just had to accept it at this point.

He took me out of the club and passed me to another man who put me inside an ambulance. I only remember that the man who saved my life was wearing a yellow helmet. After he passed me on to the other person, he turned around and went back in to look for more people. While I was in the ambulance, there was a lady beside me who was in very bad shape. A policeman asked for my home and parents’ phone numbers. I was able to give them straight away, but all the communication system was down at the moment, so it was impossible to reach them. They closed the doors of the ambulance and took us to the military hospital.

Meanwhile, my mother and brother were coming back to the club and there was traffic everywhere and they didn’t understand why. My mom asked what had happened and someone told her that a bomb had just exploded in Club El Nogal. I can’t imagine what they felt in that moment, knowing I was inside the club. They got out of the car and ran to the club. They were running up and down trying to find me.

The bomb exploded around 8 or 8:15pm and my family didn’t have any news from me until around 11pm, when finally a call went through and they told them I was in the hospital. When I was getting x-rays, my mom, dad, brother, uncle and grandma arrived. I was so happy to see them, but I could see the worried, sad look on their faces. After I got the x-rays I was taken into the surgery room. I woke up the next day in a hospital bed with nails in my left shoulder, a cast from my toe to my groin on my right leg, a bandage on my left knee and with burns, scratches and cuts all over my body. My aunt flew to Bogota from Cali to be with me, and she was the one who told me when I woke up after the surgery that it had been a bomb.

The man who rescued me visited me once to check how I was doing. Unfortunately he later passed away because he inhaled a lot of smoke the night of the bombing. This news was really shocking for me because he risked his life to save others.

It took me almost six months to recover. I spent one week in the hospital and then went home. I could not walk or go to school for two months. My grandma from Cali flew to Bogota to stay with us. Friends and family came almost every day to visit and distract me, which really helped. I had a therapist that would come everyday to help me do exercises in order to recover faster. There were times of frustration because I was lying in bed all day and couldn’t do much, but I really wanted to get better fast and go back to my normal life.

It was really hard when I started walking again; it was like learning all over, going really slow, step-by-step. When I was able to get on court, I was scared to move and reach for shots. But slowly I started to trust my body. When I started competing again it was really tough because I lost to people I had always beaten. It made me realize that I had to work harder in order to get back to my level.

Going through this experience really changed my way of looking at life. It made me appreciate life more and care more about others. One thing that I know now is that life is short and that you should take advantage of everything you have.

Every February 7th, I realize how time flies by. It has been already a dozen years since it happened. It just doesn’t seem real.