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Despite Deaths, Mexico Is Spared Greater Quake Loss

January 23, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

COLIMA, Mexico — Grieving relatives laid coffins in the streets here Wednesday as Mexico began its recovery from a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that killed at least 29 people, injured 190 others and reduced parts of this colonial-era capital to heaps of brick and adobe rubble.

Overall, Mexico was lucky, because a combination of geography and seismology blunted the effects of one of the strongest earthquakes to strike the nation since a magnitude 8.1 temblor devastated Mexico City in 1985. The epicenter was about 60 miles off the coast of sparsely populated Colima state, and the westward slant of the shock waves meant that much of the temblor's energy was sent harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean.

About 10,000 people were reported to have lost their homes -- a tiny fraction of the population of the 13 states that felt the quake across western and central Mexico at 8:07 p.m. Tuesday.

Even in Colima, the hardest-hit city, most of the damage was limited to adobe and brick houses built in recent decades in and around the historic central core, which dates to 1522. Other parts of the city, home to 125,000 people, largely escaped serious structural damage.

In the city center Wednesday, army and civilian crews worked methodically on a hot, sticky day, knocking over structures that were about to fall, loading up and carting away debris. People gingerly entered damaged buildings to recover personal documents.

Ruben Barajas Pizano, a Colima state disaster relief coordinator, said he didn't believe any more people were trapped in the debris.

The 45-second temblor terrified people in a seismically active region who know the toll a quake can cause. For those who lost houses or loved ones, it was a devastating event.

Rosita Orozco, 90, sat on a wooden folding chair outside her two-story brick home, staring in disbelief at the damage. Several interior walls had collapsed in the aqua-colored structure where she had lived for 40 years.

"I have never had anything as bad as this in my life," she said. "We built it with a lot of sacrifice. I worked morning, noon and night."

Maria de la Luz Rueda Pena said she was in a local church when she felt the first vibrations Tuesday. "I could hear dragons inside the church," she said. "I really panicked. The noise I could hear, it was like demons."

Four people, including a 99-year-old man, died along a three-block stretch in the neighboring town of Villa de Alvarez when their homes were smashed into powder. In Tecoman, the town closest to the epicenter, a falling lamppost crushed a 90-year-old man. A collapsing brick ceiling killed an 18-month-old girl in Zapotitlan, in neighboring Jalisco state.

Maria Rodriguez Macia, 83, died beneath the rubble of her adobe home in Colima. Her family and others whose houses were severely damaged had nowhere to put their dead, so they placed coffins on tables outside on the street and put up makeshift altars with photographs of those killed.

"We're too afraid to have [the wake] inside," said her son, Vicente Rodriguez. "You felt how the ground moved just now."

More than 16 aftershocks, including two that registered magnitude 5.8 and 5.3, hit the region Wednesday, causing little additional damage but rattling the nerves of thousands of dazed residents who had slept little or not at all the night before.

Broken electrical wires dangled menacingly over some streets here, and parts of the city were hit by sporadic power outages. Plaster and terra cotta tiles covered the surface of many streets and sidewalks. Many buildings had disgorged huge chunks of plaster or adobe.

President Vicente Fox, who toured the city center Wednesday, said the "consequences of the quake were fortunately not as grave as had been expected." But people who gathered around him grew impatient as he tried to assure them that his government would help them rebuild.

"This is a trial of fire for you, Mr. President!" a man shouted.

"Don't you worry," Fox said. "I have put myself to this test. Try me, try me."

Deployed by the president, the Mexican army set up six shelters and sent dozens of medics, communications technicians and engineers to the area.

Colima Gov. Fernando Moreno declared an emergency in the state's five hardest-hit towns to speed the flow of a promised $2 million for reconstruction of housing. Schools throughout the state were closed at least until Monday so authorities can inspect them for damage.

Fox said resort hotels along the coast suffered no damage that should deter tourists, although hotels in the coastal town of Manzanillo, 35 miles southwest of Colima, reported some cracked walls and broken windows. Rockslides triggered by the quake closed Manzanillo's port.

The damage in Colima was selective. A few blocks from the worst of the wreckage, life followed the usual rhythms of a small provincial capital. Couples sat sipping sodas or coffee on the central town square, while young children fed the pigeons by a fountain. The mood of the city in general was one of calm.

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