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Rescuers search for Chile quake survivors; death toll jumps to 708

The death toll nearly doubles as rescuers reach isolated and devastated towns. About 2 million people are hurt or without their homes one day after the 8.8 quake.

March 01, 2010|By Patrick J. McDonnell and Tracy Wilkinson

Reporting from Santiago, Chile, and Mexico City — With more than 700 people reported dead, rescuers smashed through fallen walls and sawed into rubble Sunday in an urgent push to find survivors of the massive earthquake that roared through Chile a day earlier. Some 2 million were said to be displaced, injured or otherwise impaired by the disaster. Untold numbers remained missing.

Government forces struggled to contain looting in some of the most heavily damaged areas, dispatching the army to the task in Concepcion, Chile's second-largest city. Large parts of the country remained without water or electricity. Tent triage centers were being set up around battered hospitals as authorities implored doctors to report to work to attend to the wounded and a series of strong aftershocks continued to rattle the disaster zone.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced that the death toll from one of the most powerful quakes on record had jumped to 708, nearly doubling as rescue crews reached remote, devastated towns close to the offshore epicenter. "These numbers will continue to grow," she said.

In one such coastal community, Constitucion, as many as 350 people may have been killed by the quake and a tsunami that hit about half an hour later, covering shattered homes with thick mud, state television reported. Boats were tossed from the sea like paper toys, landing on the roofs of houses.

"This is an emergency without parallel in the history of Chile," Bachelet said. "We will need everyone from the public and private sector . . . to join in a gigantic effort" to recover, she said, indicating for the first time that international aid will be welcomed.

Bachelet's term ends March 11, when President-elect Sebastian Pinera takes charge.

The magnitude 8.8 quake, which hit before dawn Saturday, toppled buildings, buckled freeways, destroyed or severely damaged half a million homes and set off sirens thousands of miles away as governments scrambled to protect coastal residents from the ensuing tsunami. Even with a steady rattling of aftershocks, authorities lifted tsunami warnings Sunday after smaller-than-feared waves washed shores from Southern California to Hawaii and Japan. But Chilean authorities acknowledged that they had underestimated the potential for tsunami destruction here in places such as Constitucion and Robinson Crusoe Island.

Looting broke out Sunday in some of the most heavily damaged areas, where residents complained they were hungry and bereft of basic supplies. Crowds overran supermarkets in Concepcion, about 70 miles south of the epicenter, and were making off with food, water and diapers but also television sets. Several banks, pharmacies and gasoline stations were also hit. In nearby San Pedro, crowds swarmed a shopping mall like the day after Thanksgiving.

Police in armored vehicles sprayed looters with water and tear gas and made several arrests, mostly of young men.

"The people are desperate and say the only way is to come get stuff for themselves," Concepcion resident Patricio Martinez told reporters. "We have money to buy it, but the big stores are closed, so what are we supposed to do?"

After nightfall in Concepcion, the wrecked city went quiet as residents appeared to heed the curfew and stay at home or in their makeshift camps. Rescuers continued to work through the night under the glow of floodlights.

Bachelet, after a six-hour emergency meeting with her Cabinet on Sunday, announced she was sending 10,000 troops into the Concepcion area and elsewhere to restore order and assist in recovering bodies and searching for survivors. Using the armed forces is always a sensitive topic in a country that lived under nearly two decades of military dictatorship.

On Saturday, she declared swaths of the country "catastrophe zones" and later issued a 30-day emergency decree for the quake zone. It allows the army to be in charge and to enforce a curfew. Hoping to ease panic, she said basic supplies including food would be distributed free of charge by supermarket chains in the largely soft-soil coastal states of Biobio and Maule where most of the deaths tabulated so far took place.

Earlier, the mayor of Concepcion, Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, issued a plea for help to squelch the pillaging. "It is out of control!" she told Chilean television.

More than 24 hours after the quake hit, reaching the hardest-hit sites was an arduous task. Traffic streamed slowly southward from Santiago along buckled roads and cracked overpasses, often making detours on rural side paths. The bus station in Santiago was swamped with Chileans trying to travel south or send food and supplies to their families; bus companies canceled most trips because of road conditions.

Carlos Puldoc, 33, was flying into Santiago in hopes of going south to Curico to check on his parents. It's normally a two-hour drive but now could easily take twice as long as that.

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