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A Peruvian mother's search for her son

Gloria Granda checks each body bag at the makeshift morgue in quake-devastated Pisco, where hope is fading.

August 20, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

pisco, peru -- Gloria Granda hastens to the police lines as firemen deliver the latest body bag from the rubble.

"My son?" she inquires.

"A girl," says the man from the identification unit.

A painful vigil is prolonged. But so is hope.

"I pray he is alive," Granda says of her son, Maximiliano "Max" Campoblanco Granda, last seen Wednesday, the day of the catastrophe.

"Has anyone seen him?" she asks of no one in particular in the central plaza. "He's very tall. More than 6 feet."

Sunday marked four days since a magnitude 8 earthquake centered in the Pacific shook Peru, killing about 500 people, mostly in this coastal city and the nearby towns of Ica and Chincha.

The Plaza de Armas, once a peaceful refuge from the sun, has been transformed into a bustling nerve center for rescue, cleanup and aid operations in devastated Pisco, site of more than 70% of the fatalities.

Buildings on all sides of the plaza lay buckled and wrecked, none more ominous than the battered shell of San Clemente Roman Catholic Church, where rescuers have pulled 133 bodies from the ruins. The church's two bell towers and its cupola still stand, but the heavy roof is gone, having tumbled down on more than 200 worshipers when the quake struck just as an evening Mass was concluding.

"We always maintain hope that we will find more survivors," says Cmdr. Jorge Vera, the fire chief who heads a force of more than 500 Peruvian and international rescue workers, including firefighters, sniffer-dog teams and tunneling experts.

"But, as time goes by, we also have to be realistic."

The last survivor was pulled from the rubble Saturday, Vera notes, "in pretty bad shape."

Across the street from the firefighters' command post, a bulletin board displays the names of the missing. Many have been crossed out with the notation fallecido, dead. A few bear the designation vivo, alive. About 50 remain missing, including Granda's son.

She haunts the plaza like a hollow-eyed specter, a plastic bag containing her blanket in her hand.

With the arrival of each body bag, Granda approaches the police lines that delineate an open-air morgue.

Unidentified corpses are stored in a white refrigerator trailer, normally used for frozen seafood. A bulletin board gives some details of those inside: One is a 50-ish man who wore a white shirt with blue stripes and a cap advertising Flor de Cana, a popular rum; another man, closer to 60, was wearing a polo shirt with the emblem of the Peruvian national soccer team

"It's hard work," says Luis Bromley, head of Peru's Institute of Legal Medicine, which is charged with identifying the bodies. "The children, in particular, pose a problem. They don't carry any identification."

A priest stands by to administer last rites and comfort the afflicted.

"I tell them the dead are angels who will look after their families from heaven," says Father Fabricio Landeo, part of a bolstered corps of clerics from Lima, the capital.

Rescue workers bring a bag with the remains of a girl. A pair of distraught parents appears as if from nowhere. The father makes a quick identification. Despair overcomes the shattered mother, who moans without consolation.

The girl is Patricia Alexandra Anchante Martinez, 15. She sang in the church choir, says one of the forensic technicians seated at a table with blank death certificates.

Everyone wears surgical masks, protection from the stench of death and the dust from pulverized adobe. Uncollected garbage and broken sewage lines complete the noxious ambience.

Workers produce a slate-colored coffin, courtesy of the government. They place the girl's remains inside, then hoist the coffin onto a beat-up yellow pickup. It heads for the cemetery, the busiest place in town after the plaza. The quake tumbled tombstones and felled mausoleums, in some cases exposing coffins and skeletal remains.

Simple wood crosses and fresh flowers mark the graves of the earthquake victims.

"He was a good student, a good boy," says Catalina Fajardo de Chang, a school administrator who has come to pay respects to one of her students, a 14-year-old named Luis Miguel. "His mother is a nurse and his father has a repair shop. They are a very good family."

The boy was killed when the walls collapsed around him in the private academy where he was studying English, she says.

Fajardo says she was in Lima when the earthquake struck. She rushed back.

"It pains me so to see what has happened to my town," she says at the graveside. "So much sorrow. So much sadness."

On the streets outside, residents are trying to salvage what they can from their destroyed homes. Many clamber about the unstable ruins, grab their worldly possessions and pile them on the sidewalk. Then they guard the stuff.

"The thieves will come and take everything," explains Alejandro Talledo, sitting alongside a pile of life's acquisitions: drawers of clothing, a refrigerator, a television set, a stuffed dog.

Many Pisquenos, as the town residents are known, are opting to leave, tossing all their belongings in the back of a pickup and moving elsewhere. They look like so many Dust Bowl migrants heading to California. But Talledo is staying put, sleeping in one of the many tent cities here while he and other relatives take turns guarding the household goods.

"The ones who are leaving have someplace to go," he explains. "We have no place else. This is our home. So Pisco is where we stay."

--

patrick.mcdonnell@ latimes.com

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