Deaths, desperation rise in Chile

Authorities combat looting, scramble to find survivors as quake toll exceeds 700

March 01, 2010|By Patrick J. McDonnell and Tracy Wilkinson | Tribune Newspapers

SANTIAGO, Chile — — With more than 700 people reported dead, rescuers smashed through fallen walls and sawed into rubble Sunday in an urgent push to find survivors of the massive earthquake that roared through Chile a day earlier. Some 2 million were said to be displaced, injured or otherwise impaired by the disaster. Untold numbers remained missing.

Government forces struggled to contain looting in some of the most heavily damaged areas, dispatching the army to the task in Concepcion, Chile's second-largest city. Large parts of the country remained without water or electricity. Tent triage centers were being set up around battered hospitals as authorities implored doctors to report to work to attend the wounded and a series of strong aftershocks continued to rattle the disaster zone.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced that the death toll from one of the most powerful quakes on record had jumped to 708, nearly doubling as rescue crews reached remote, devastated towns close to the offshore epicenter. "These numbers will continue to grow," she said.

In one such coastal community, Constitucion, as many as 350 people may have been killed by the quake and a tsunami wave that hit about half an hour later, covering shattered homes with thick mud, state television reported. Boats were tossed from the sea like paper toys, landing with a crash onto the roofs of houses.

"This is an emergency without parallel in the history of Chile," Bachelet said. "We will need everyone from the public and private sector … to join in a gigantic effort" to recover, she added, allowing for the first time that international aid will be welcomed.

Bachelet's term in office ends March 11, when President-elect Sebastian Pinera takes charge.

The magnitude-8.8 quake, which hit before dawn on Saturday, toppled buildings, buckled freeways and set off sirens thousands of miles away as governments scrambled to protect coastal residents from the ensuing tsunami. Even with a steady rattling of aftershocks, authorities lifted tsunami warnings Sunday after smaller-than-feared waves washed ashore from Southern California to Hawaii and Japan. But Chilean authorities acknowledged they had underestimated the potential for tsunami destruction in places such as Constitucion and the Robinson Crusoe islands of Chile.

Looting broke out Sunday in some of the most heavily damaged areas, where residents complained they were hungry and bereft of basic supplies. Crowds overran supermarkets in Concepcion, located about 70 miles south of the epicenter, and were making off with food, water and diapers but also television sets. Several banks, pharmacies and gasoline stations were also hit. At nearby San Pedro, crowds swarmed a shopping mall.

Police in armored vehicles sprayed looters with water cannon and tear gas and made several arrests, mostly of young men.

"The people are desperate and say the only way is to come get stuff for themselves," Concepcion resident Patricio Martinez told reporters. "We have money to buy it but the big stores are closed, so what are we supposed to do?"

Bachelet, following a six-hour emergency meeting Sunday with her Cabinet, announced she was sending 10,000 army troops into the Concepcion area and elsewhere to restore order and assist in recovering bodies and searching for survivors. Using the armed forces is always a sensitive topic in a country that lived under nearly two decades of military dictatorship.

On Saturday, she declared swaths of the country "catastrophe zones" and later issued a 30-day emergency decree for the quake zone. It allows the army to be in charge and to enforce a curfew. Hoping to ease panic, she said basic supplies including food will be distributed free of charge by supermarket chains in the largely soft-soil coastal states of Biobio and Maule, where most of the deaths tabulated so far took place.

The mayor of Concepcion, Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, issued a dramatic plea for help to squelch the pillaging. "It is out of control!" she told Chilean television.

More than 24 hours after the quake hit, reaching ground-zero sites was an arduous task. Traffic streamed slowly southward from Santiago along buckled roads and cracked overpasses, often making detours on rural side paths. The bus station in Santiago was swamped with Chileans trying to travel south or send food and supplies to their families; bus companies canceled most trips because of road conditions.

In the disaster zone, thousands of people slept outside, wrapped in blankets or with small campfires against the cold, forced from their homes by the structures' precarious condition or by fear stoked by the aftershocks - more than 100 of which registered magnitude 5 or higher, according to the Associated Press.

Among the rescue teams reaching Concepcion was the 42-member Santiago Firefighters Task Force, which recently returned to Chile from Haiti, where it performed the similar job of searching for survivors.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.