More than 200 dead in Chile quake

 

CONCEPCION, Chile — Rescuers
edged their way toward residents trapped in a toppled apartment block early
Sunday and survivors huddled around bonfires in the rubble of their homes as
the death toll in Chile continued to rise after one of the strongest earthquakes
in history.

Authorities put the official
death toll from Saturday’s 8.8-magnitude quake at 214, but said they believed
the number would grow. They said 1.5 million Chileans were affected and 500,000
homes severely damaged by the mammoth temblor.

A tsunami caused by the quake
that swept across the Pacific killed several people on a Chilean island but
caused little damage in other countries. The tsunami warning was lifted a day
after the earthquake.

President Michelle Bachelet, who
leaves office March 11, declared a “state of catastrophe” in central Chile. “It
was a catastrophe of devastating consequences,” she said.

Police said more than 100 people
died in Concepcion, the largest city near the epicenter with more than 200,000
people. The university was among the buildings that caught fire around the city
as gas and power lines snapped. Many streets were littered with rubble from
edifices, inmates escaped from a nearby prison and police warned that criminals
had been looting stores.

The largest single damage
involved a newly opened 11-story building that toppled backward, trapping an
estimated 60 people inside apartments where the floors suddenly became vertical
and the contents of every room slammed down onto rear walls.

“It fell at the moment the
earthquake began,” said 4th Lt. Juan Schulmeyer of Concepcion’s 7th Firefighter
Company, pointing to where the foundation collapsed. A full 24 hours later,
only 16 people had been pulled out alive, and six bodies had been recovered.

Rescuers heard a woman call out
at 11 p.m. Saturday from what seemed like the 6th floor, but hours later they
were making slow progress in reaching her. Rescuers were working with two power
saws and an electric hammer on a generator, but their supply of gas was running
out and it was taking them a frustrating hour and a half to cut each hole
through the concrete.

“It’s very difficult working in
the dark with aftershocks, and inside it’s complicated. The apartments are
totally destroyed. You have to work with great caution,” said Paulo Klein, who
was leading a group of rescue specialists from Puerto Montt. They flew in on an
air force plane with just the equipment they could carry. Heavy equipment was
coming later along with 12 other rescuers.

The quake tore apart houses,
bridges and highways, and Chileans near the epicenter were thrown from their
beds by the force of the mega-quake, which was felt as far away as Sao Paulo in
Brazil — 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) to the east.

The full extent of damage
remained unclear. Ninety aftershocks of magnitude 5 or greater shuddered across
the disaster prone Andean nation within 24 hours of the initial quake. One was
nearly as powerful as Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12 earthquake.

In the village of Reumen, a
tractor trailer slammed into a dangling pedestrian overpass and 40 tons of
concrete and steel crunched the truck, covering Chile’s main highway with
smashed grapes, tomatoes and cucumbers — one of several overpasses toppled
along the highway.

Truck driver Jaime Musso, 53,
thought his truck was being buffeted by strong winds and by the time he saw the
overpass hanging down over Highway 5 there was no chance of stopping, so he
aimed for the spot where he thought he would cause the least damage and brought
down the overpass onto his truck. He said he survived “by millimeters.”

As night fell Saturday, about a
dozen men and children sat around a bonfire in the remains of their homes in
Curico, a town 122 miles (196 kilometers) south of the capital, Santiago.

“We were sleeping when we felt
the quake, very strongly. I got up and went out the door. When I looked back my
bed was covered in rubble,” said survivor Claudio Palma.

In the capital Santiago, 200
miles (325 kilometers) to the northeast of the epicenter, the national Fine
Arts Museum was badly damaged and an apartment building’s two-story parking lot
pancaked, smashing about 50 cars.

Santiago’s airport was closed and
its subway shut down. Chile’s main seaport, in Valparaiso, was ordered closed
while damage was assessed. Two oil refineries shut down. The state-run Codelco,
the world’s largest copper producer, halted work at two of its mines, but said
it expected them to resume operations quickly.

The jolt set off a tsunami that
swamped San Juan Bautista village on Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile, killing
at least five people and leaving 11 missing, said Guillermo de la Masa, head of
the government emergency bureau for the Valparaiso region.

On the mainland, several huge
waves inundated part of the major port city of Talcahuano, near hard-hit
Concepcion. A large boat was swept more than a block inland.

The surge of water raced across
the Pacific, setting off alarm sirens in Hawaii, Polynesia and Tonga, but the
tsunami waves proved small and did little damage as they reached as far as
Japan.

Robert Williams, a geophysicist
at the U.S. Geological Survey, said the Chilean quake was hundreds of times
more powerful than Haiti’s magnitude-7 quake, though it was deeper and cost far
fewer lives.

The largest earthquake ever recorded
struck the same area of Chile on May 22, 1960. The magnitude-9.5 quake killed
1,655 people and made 2 million homeless. Saturday’s quake matched a 1906
temblor off the Ecuadorean coast as the seventh-strongest ever recorded in the
world.