Rescuers seeking victims

Rescuers edged their way toward
quake victims trapped in a toppled apartment block early Sunday even as looters
stole food and robbed banks after one of the strongest earthquakes ever
recorded struck Chile.

Authorities put the death toll from
Saturday’s magnitude-8.8 quake at 214, but 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, after precautionary evacuations of hundreds
of thousands of people. 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 epicentre 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 and inmates escaped from a nearby prison.

“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 survivor ”— Claudio Palma

Police used water cannon and tear
gas to scatter people who forced open the doors of the Lider supermarket in
Concepcion, hauling away everything from diapers to dehydrated milk to a
kitchen stove.

Across the Bio Bio River in San
Pedro, others cleared out a shopping mall. A video store was set ablaze, two
automatic teller machines were broken open, a bank was robbed and a supermarket
emptied, its floor littered with mashed plums, scattered dog food and smashed
liquor bottles.

The largest building damaged in
Concepion was a newly opened 11-story apartment 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.

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