Beach towns hit by double tragedy

More horrific stories of the devastation caused by Chile’s earthquake emerged today as beach communities counted the cost of a double tragedy.

More horrific stories of the devastation caused by Chile’s earthquake emerged today as beach communities counted the cost of a double tragedy.

The country’s south-central coast suffered the double tragedy on Saturday of the earthquake and the tsunami it caused.

Of the quake’s 723 victims, most were in the wine-growing Maule region that includes Talcahuano, now a mud-caked, ravaged town of 180,000 just north of Concepcion.

Nearly 80% of Talcahuano’s residents were homeless, with 10,000 homes uninhabitable and hundreds more destroyed, said mayor Gaston Saavedra.

“The port is destroyed. The streets, collapsed. City buildings, destroyed,” Mr Saavedra said.

In Concepcion, the biggest city near the epicentre, rescuers heard the knocking of victims trapped inside a toppled 70-unit apartment building yesterday and were drilling through thick concrete to reach them, said fire commander Juan Carlos Subercaseux.

By today, firefighters had pulled 25 survivors and nine bodies from the structure.

Chile’s defence minister has said the navy made a mistake by not immediately activating a tsunami warning. He said port captains who did call warnings in several coastal towns saved hundreds of lives.

The waves came too quickly for a group of 40 pensioners holidaying at a seaside campground in the village of Pelluhue.

They had piled into a bus that was swept out to sea, along with trucks and houses, when the tsunami surged 200 yards into the summer resort town.

Firefighters said five bodies had been recovered. At least 30 remained missing.

Most residents in Pelluhue, where 300 homes were destroyed, were aware of the tsunami threat. Street signs point to the nearest tsunami evacuation route.

“We ran through the highest part of town, yelling, ’Get out of your homes!’,” said Claudio Escalona, 43, who fled his home near the campground with his wife and daughters aged four and six.

“About 20 minutes later came three waves, two of them huge, about 18ft each, and a third even bigger. That one went into everything.”

“You could hear the screams of children, women, everyone,” Mr Escalona said. “There were the screams, and then a tremendous silence.”

In the village of Dichato, teenagers drinking on the beach were the first to shout the warning when they saw a horseshoe-shaped bay empty about an hour after the quake. They ran through the streets, screaming. Police joined them, using megaphones.

The water rose steadily, surging above the second floors of homes and lifting them off their foundations. Cars were stacked three high in the streets. Miles inland along a river valley, cows munched next to marooned boats, refrigerators, sofas and other debris.

“The maritime radio said there wouldn’t be a tsunami,” said survivor Rogilio Reyes, who was tipped off by the teenagers.

Dichato mayor Eduardo Aguilera said 49 people were missing and 800 homes were destroyed.

Some people fled to high ground, only to return too early and get caught by the tsunami, he said.

Fourteen bodies were found by yesterday. The only aid was a fire brigade water truck.

The World Health Organisation said it expected the death toll to rise as communications improved.

For survivors, it said access to health services would be a major challenge and noted that indigenous people living in adobe homes were most at risk.

In Geneva, United Nations humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said Chile was seeking temporary bridges, field hospitals, satellite phones, electric generators, damage assessment teams, water purification systems, field kitchens and dialysis centres.

Chilean president Michelle Bachelet said authorities were flying 320 tons of food, water and other basics into the quake zone.

Assessments of damage to Chile’s economy were in the early stage. The copper industry was spared, while Concha y Toro, Chile’s biggest winemaker, said today that the quake has forced it to halt production for at least a week while it assessed damage.

Security was a major concern in Concepcion and other hard-hit towns. Most markets in Concepcion were ransacked by looters and people desperate for food, water, toilet paper, petrol and other essentials, prompting authorities to send troops and impose an overnight curfew in the city.

The interior ministry extended the Concepcion curfew to run from 8pm yesterday to noon today, local time.

More in this section


Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox