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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

"When I first heard about the earthquake I was obviously very worried about my mother and father, but after some trouble we finally were able to reach them on the cellphone," Puldoc said. "Everything in their house and on their street was OK, but there is great damage in the city and the coastal region is in very bad shape."

In the disaster zone, thousands of people slept outside, wrapped in blankets or with small campfires against the cold, forced from their homes by the structures' precarious condition or by fear stoked by the aftershocks -- more than 100 of which registered magnitude 5 or higher, according to the Associated Press.

Among the rescue teams reaching Concepcion was the 42-member Santiago Firefighters Task Force, which recently returned to Chile from Haiti.

Efforts in Concepcion focused in part on a new, 15-story apartment building that collapsed onto one side. Neighbors reported hearing screams from beneath the rubble and feared that as many as 100 people were trapped inside.

Rescuers worked through the day Sunday slicing through concrete, consulting blueprints and pulling survivors as well as bodies -- eight of them -- from the rubble. At least 60 people were either rescued or emerged on their own power.

A few yards away, the looting reached a fever pitch. At first it seemed to be the work of the poor, but soon people who appeared to be more affluent joined in. Some people made off with raw meat, even though they had no way to cook or store it because of the lack of electricity and gas.

Jeanette Vega, deputy health minister, said at least eight major hospitals in central and southern Chile were evacuated because of felled walls, sagging ceilings and other destruction plus a lack of electrical power. That complicated care for the injured, whose numbers were swelled by car crashes as motorists navigated chopped-up roads without traffic lights.

"We really need generators for electricity," Gustavo Ramirez of the Chilean Red Cross said. "We are doing everything we can, but the need is great."

For all the destruction, Chileans were also picking themselves up and moving on. Commercial flights began to land sporadically at the main international airport, its two terminals rattled and cracked but its runways in good shape. The subway in Santiago, the capital, also resumed partial service after inspectors determined the tracks were not in need of repair.

In Santiago, sleek modern skyscrapers appeared unscathed. But older historic buildings of adobe or brick suffered. The facade crumbled on the elegant 100-year-old Bellas Artes, or Fine Arts, Museum, its stone banisters broken into rubble. Ten-foot cracks gashed the front of the nearby Opera House.

The cupola of the Divine Providence church had fallen to the ground. Residents in several parts of the capital Sunday were sweeping up glass on sidewalks in front of cracked facades.

Chile's main seaport, oil refineries and the state-run Codelco, the world's largest copper producer, all shut operations temporarily. The securities exchange expected to function normally Monday.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would proceed with a planned visit to Chile and was scheduled to arrive in Santiago on Tuesday as part of a five-nation trip. A dinner with Bachelet was canceled, however.

The State Department discouraged tourist and nonessential travel by American citizens to Chile and urged those already here to contact their families or register at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago.

The United Nations said it had accounted for almost all of its 978 employees and consultants working in Chile and that no one was hurt or killed. However, several U.N. facilities were damaged.

Preliminary estimates of the losses ran as high as $30 billion, or about 15% of Chile's GDP, according to a California-based risk-assessment group.

"While this constitutes a major disaster, Chile's widespread adoption and enforcement of modern, seismic-resistant building practices has mitigated the potential for devastation," the firm, Eqecat, said in a statement.

wilkinson@latimes.com

patrick.mcdonnell

@latimes.com

Special correspondent Lauren Williams in Santiago contributed to this report.

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