Death toll in Peru earthquake passes 500

Coastal city is 70% destroyed, many die in church collapse

August 17, 2007|By New York Times News Service

LIMA, Peru -- A day after an earthquake devastated cities along Peru's southern coast, government officials said the deaths exceeded 500, with at least 17,000 people displaced and with wide areas lacking electricity, telephone service or road access.

The deputy chief of Peru's fire department put the death toll at 510 last night.

At least 300 of the dead were in Pisco, a port town about 125 miles south of Lima, and more were thought to be buried in rubble, local officials said. Dozens were inside the San Clemente cathedral, which was full for Mass when the quake caved it in about 6:40 p.m. Wednesday. Witnesses said the spire bell clanged horribly in the seconds before it fell.

"I am a real man, but last night I was scared," said Luis Chavez, 31, who was in the main square when the cathedral collapsed. "There was so much dust that all I could think of was the World Trade Center pictures."

The mayor of Pisco, Juan Mendoza Uribe, said the quake had destroyed up to 70 percent of the city. "So much effort and our city is destroyed," he said, crying, in comments broadcast on radio station RPP in Lima.

Power and water service were still out in Pisco last night, and many residents said they would sleep outside again, afraid that aftershocks could topple more buildings. In the city center, the wreckage of dozens of old adobe homes lay in the streets. Rescuers worked late into the night.

In nearby Chincha, a wall collapsed at the Tambo de Mora prison and about 680 prisoners escaped, according to Manuel Aguilar, vice president of the National Institute of Penitentiaries. About 29 were recaptured and transferred to another jail, he said.

Judith Luna Victoria, a spokeswoman for the National Civil Defense Institute, said the number of injured was estimated at more than 800 but was sure to rise.

Officials with the U.S. Geological Survey raised their initial estimate of the strength of the earthquake to a magnitude of 8.0, making it one of the biggest quakes to strike Peru in decades. Throughout the day yesterday, dozens of aftershocks kept rolling through the area, with at least 14 rated at magnitude 5 or higher.

Across the region, neighboring governments rushed to offer aid, in some cases putting aside territorial disputes and long-standing rivalries. The United States said a team from the Agency for International Development was in Lima to assess the situation and help the Peruvian government.

President Alan Garcia declared a state of emergency and flew in to visit Pisco and Ica, another hard-hit city to the south. "There has been a good international response even without Peru asking for it, and they've been very generous," he said.

The president of the Peruvian Congress, Luis Gonzales Posada, called on large companies to donate water, food, blankets and coffins. He told the news agency DPA that the emergency was "much more urgent that one could have imagined."

It was one of the worst earthquake tolls recorded in Peru, which is no stranger to the disasters, given the major fault line running off its coast.

In 2001, a magnitude-8.4 quake struck at Arequipa, killing 138 people. In 1868, a quake estimated at magnitude-9 struck, killing an undetermined number of people immediately but then creating the worst disaster in Peru's history when the ensuing tsunami killed several thousand people along the coast.

In Lima, the capital, witnesses described the main earthquake as having come in two main waves. Houses collapsed in the middle of the city, and the quake downed power lines and broke windows across the capital. One person was reported killed.

Fernando Calderon, an American in Lima, said he was in his hotel when the quake hit. In a telephone interview with CNN, he described seeing buildings swaying as the ground shook. "Finally we started hearing glass breaking, and things falling out of the building and that's when everybody started screaming, praying, children crying," he said.

In Ica, a city to the south of Pisco, dozens of buildings collapsed in the quake and aftershocks. The local morgue had received 57 bodies as of yesterday, the Associated Press reported.

The quake cracked roads and brought down rocks and soil all through the region. The main road, the Pan-American Highway, had only one usable lane over more than a 100-mile stretch, and traffic was lined up for miles. The traffic jams worsened near Pisco and Ica; many drivers abandoned the road and tried to use nearby fields to get through.

Officials visiting the worst-hit towns, including Garcia, were forced to use helicopters.

In Pisco, many survivors were in shock, wandering the streets and crowding around the overwhelmed local hospital.

"There are corpses all over the place; the bodies are thrown everywhere and every family is mourning over the loss of a loved one, friend, neighbor or family member," said Luis Garcia, a reporter for El Comercio de Lima.

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