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A Frightening Night at a Resort

Fearing aftershocks, some tourists sleep outdoors. Others flee Mexican beach town.

January 24, 2003|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

MANZANILLO, Mexico -- The moment Brenda Burt stepped off the bus in this seaside town, she was nearly knocked off her feet as the road rumbled beneath her. She grabbed her friend and ran into the street, dodging fallen wires and debris.

"We wanted an adventure but not this kind of adventure," said the 43-year-old Canadian nurse, who had just arrived from Puerto Vallarta when the magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit the region Tuesday evening.

Although there were no deaths or serious injuries in Manzanillo, the quake frightened tourists, knocked down a lighthouse, closed the busy port and caused minor damage to resort hotels. More than 1,300 homes and schools were damaged near Manzanillo's center, several miles from the hotel zone. City leaders spent Thursday touring the affected areas and helping residents whose homes were uninhabitable.

President Vicente Fox said Wednesday that the damage should not deter visitors from traveling to the coastal resorts, and city leaders echoed his statement Thursday, but hotel employees and tour owners said that many tourists left as quickly as they could and that others canceled vacations. The epicenter of the earthquake was about 60 miles off the coast of Colima state; hardest hit was the city of Colima, about an hour's drive northeast of Manzanillo.

"The beaches are empty," said Hector Jimenez, who leads sport-fishing and snorkeling tours from three local hotels. "Nobody wants to come to an area where there are earthquakes." The only injury reported in Manzanillo's hotel zone was at Karmina Palace, where a bamboo pole fell onto one of the resort's managers and sent him to the hospital with cuts and bruises on his back and an arm. The earthquake also broke several windows, cracked walls and knocked down paintings at hotels along Boulevard Miguel de la Madrid.

"Manzanillo was very lucky," said the hotel concierge, Ana Maria Sanchez. Manzanillo, which has a population of about 130,000, is known primarily for its commercial port, but for decades it has also drawn American and Canadian tourists to its warm waters and palm tree-lined beaches. The community got a publicity boost in 1979, when the movie "10," starring Bo Derek, was filmed at the elaborate Las Hadas resort.

Since Tuesday's earthquake, Sanchez has received hundreds of phone calls from travel agents and tourists wondering whether the hotel -- and Manzanillo -- were still up and running. Sanchez said she keeps reassuring them that the worst is over and that they shouldn't cancel or postpone any trips. Canadian Peter Diguer, who is staying at Karmina Palace, said that at first, he thought nearby volcanoes were erupting. As soon as he figured out what was happening, Diguer scrambled for cover and got on a walkie-talkie to track down his children elsewhere at the resort.

His friend, Janice Vandevooren, said she hasn't gotten much sleep since Tuesday but is trying to make the best of her disrupted vacation. "We've been kind of stunned," she said as she sat near the swimming pool. "This is all really foreign for us."

At Las Hadas resort, Canadian Brenda Mattes sat under an umbrella on the beach Thursday afternoon. Mattes said she was eating seafood in downtown Manzanillo when the table began bouncing, the lights went out, and she heard what sounded like a huge train roaring by the restaurant. "It felt like the building was going to fall down," said Mattes, who lives near Vancouver and is in Manzanillo for a 10-day trip.

Another Las Hadas guest, Gloria Stewart, fled to a hotel patio after the earthquake and didn't return to her room until several hours later. Then, she said, she slept fully dressed -- with her purse on her shoulder -- in case a strong aftershock forced her to flee again at a moment's notice. "We were on red alert," Stewart, 72, said Thursday as she sat at the edge of the water and let the waves wash over her legs.

Some tourists feared going back inside. They slept in beach chairs, and on tennis courts and golf courses. And although visitors were scared by the seismic activity, several residents of the twin-bay town said they are accustomed to earthquakes and other natural disasters. In fact, signs along the main road urge drivers to be careful of floods.

The last major seismic activity in the area was in 1995, when a magnitude 7.6 earthquake killed nearly 40 people, crumbled the eight-story Hotel Costa Real and left two other hotels beyond repair, said city historian Alejandro Hernandez. "There are floods, strong rains, cyclones, earthquakes, everything," he said. "It's always been that way. We have to be strong here, because if we had weak characters we all would have left. Manzanillo would be empty."

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