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Dozens Die as 7.6 Quake Hits Mexico's West Coast : Latin America: Temblor brings down resort hotel in Manzanillo. Two-minute tremor rattles nerves in capital.

October 10, 1995|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Dozens of people were killed and more than 100 injured Monday when a powerful earthquake rumbled along the Pacific coast of Mexico, crushing homes, hotels, bridges and a jail and giving the nation's capital its second scare in a month.

The quake, which U.S. scientists measured at 7.6, triggered mudslides, downed power lines and cut telephone service in towns near the epicenter, located 15 miles southeast of Manzanillo--340 miles west of Mexico City--in the small coastal state of Colima.

In Manzanillo, a city famed for its seaside luxury resorts, Defense Minister Enrique Cervantes confirmed that eight died when a jail collapsed and that at least five bodies were pulled from the Costa Real hotel after it crumbled in the quake. Witnesses later said they had counted at least 10 dead taken from the remains of the eight-story hotel.

Rescue teams dug through the hotel rubble into the night, and authorities said they feared the death toll there might climb.

In neighboring Jalisco, state officials said late Monday that they had confirmed just 10 dead, apologizing publicly for their earlier reports that at least 46 people had perished in the state.

Amid continuing aftershocks, the state's communications department had issued a preliminary assessment that gave that death toll. It also reported thousands of damaged homes, dozens of felled power lines and several collapsed bridges in villages and towns just north of the epicenter. The initial toll, they said, was based on telephone accounts in which relatives apparently reported family casualties more than once.

Minutes after the quake struck at 9:36 a.m., President Ernesto Zedillo declared Manzanillo and the surrounding region a disaster area and ordered the Mexican army and half a dozen federal agencies to the scene.

Expressing deep sorrow, Zedillo also delivered "a message of solidarity and support . . . for the families of the victims" in a brief statement made at the Mexico City airport as he departed for a four-day state visit to the United States. The trip officially begins with a White House ceremony today.

The majority of the dead and injured initially appeared to be in the remote Jalisco village of Cihuatlan, where state officials reported Monday afternoon that 30 residents were killed, more than 100 injured and 150 left homeless. At least 11 others, state officials had said, were killed and 20 severely injured when a hotel collapsed in neighboring San Patricio Melaque.

Just before midnight, though, Jalisco's opposition Gov. Alberto Cardenas announced on national television that the death toll for his entire state stood at 10, and his spokesmen quickly apologized for the earlier casualty reports.

So powerful was the quake that it destroyed the steeple of the Guadalupe Church about 135 miles northwest of the epicenter in Puerto Vallarta, a seaside resort where most major hotels reported only minor damage. It cracked buildings and froze millions in fear about 130 miles to the northeast in Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, which also reported no major damage or serious injuries. And office workers as far north as Dallas and Oklahoma City said they felt the quake.

"It was so strong, we couldn't walk," said Patricia Ortiz, a maintenance worker at Manzanillo's Club Med resort, which she said was closed after the late-summer season. "My legs are still trembling."

Local officials farther up the coast issued flood warnings, reporting that the ocean had risen as much as 50 yards during the quake.

In the nation's capital, the two-minute tremor and its aftershocks had high-rise buildings swaying madly and sent a wave of shellshocked office workers and residents into the streets during morning rush hour. The tremor caused no major damage or injuries in the capital, but it served as another reminder of Mexico City's vulnerability 10 years after the 8.1 quake that killed more than 10,000 people and demolished thousands of buildings in the city on Sept. 19, 1985.

A sophisticated alarm system that warned the city's 20 million residents nearly a minute before a 7.2 quake hit a month ago did not sound on Monday. The system's early warning sensors are located in the state of Guerrero, the epicenter of most of the tremors that reach the capital, which is built on an ancient, drained lake bed that trembles like jelly during earthquakes. Monday's quake was centered dozens of miles away from the northernmost early warning sensor.

Monday's quake took its toll on the economy as well, forcing the evacuation of Mexico's stock exchange and a 30-minute suspension of trading. At the end of Monday's session, the market closed down nearly 4%. And the Mexican peso--which has been stable at about 6.3 to the U.S. dollar for several months after losing 40% of its value earlier this year--fell to 6.66 after the quake.

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