Luis Gatica, who lost nearly his entire family, including his 4-year-old… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)
Reporting from Constitucion, Chile — When the first wave hit, Luis Gatica allowed himself a glimmer of hope: Maybe he, his wife and their 4-year-old daughter would survive.
Clinging to a tree on a small island just offshore, they braced for the next surge of sea water bound to follow the magnitude 8.8 earthquake. The initial tsunami wave had reached only to his knees.
"I thought for a moment that we were going to be spared, and we would have this story to tell when we were old," Gatica, a firefighter and paramedic, said days later in a barely audible monotone.
But this was not to be one of those inspirational close calls recounted in family lore. A subsequent wave battered the island off this coastal city like a turbine-charged colossus, sweeping away Gatica's family and dozens of other people.
The massive quake that rocked Chile on Feb. 27 was one of the most powerful in decades. But in many coastal towns, it was the subsequent series of tsunami waves that did most of the damage, obliterating homes and businesses, washing away vehicles and roads and tossing fishing boats and sea containers aside like toys, depositing some a mile or more inland.
Town is battered
Constitucion, a gritty forestry and fishing town of 55,000, was among the hardest-hit places. A port official here said waves on the coast reached almost 100 feet. Officials initially feared as many as 500 had died, later revising the probable death toll to less than 200, even as dozens remained missing.
In a bitter twist of fate, the calamity struck at the height of la semana maulina, a week of merriment marking the end of the South American summer along the River Maule.
At the heart of the festivities is Isla Orrego, a woodsy islet off Constitucion, in the mouth of the Maule. "We set up the tents, gathered wood, got everything ready," Gatica said, in an almost trance-like account.
Then Gatica, 29, and his wife, Sandra, 24, daughter Estefania, and the family of his brother, Juan, 40, savored the languid day, playing ball, cooking hot dogs and roasting potatoes.
"It was a marvelous day, very tranquil, with a lot of smiling and laughing," said Gatica, a solidly built 6-footer with dark, wavy hair.
"My daughter didn't want to be apart from me," he said. "There were lots of hugs and kisses. It was a precious time."
The quake struck at 3:34 a.m., lasting perhaps two minutes.
On the island, there were no buildings to fall on anyone and the 50 or so campers survived the rattling. But trepidation mounted as they braced for the terrifying sequel: the maremoto, or tsunami, a phenomenon deeply dreaded in this earthquake- and volcano-prone nation with a 3,000-mile-long coast along the Pacific "ring of fire."
Just across the water, in Constitucion, many fled -- in their pajamas and barefooted -- to higher ground. That probably saved thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of lives along the Chilean coast.
Witnesses said there was a 10- to 20-minute window between the earthquake and the first tsunami surge, depending on the distance from the epicenter below the Pacific.
For Gatica and others on Orrego, however, there was no way out. The boatmen had returned to the mainland. It was too far and deep for most to wade across. A sense of panic escalated.
"There was one guy who was shouting, 'We're going to die! The wave is going to come!' " Gatica said. "The guy was schizophrenic. But it turned out he wasn't lying."
The lack of alternatives was particularly vexing for Gatica, an emergency responder. "I felt blocked," he said. "There were so many lives to save and we didn't have a way to do it."
Families headed for the highest point on the island. Gatica's wife hugged a tree. Gatica hugged his wife. Between them was wedged Estefania, clinging to her father's chest.
In the first surge, the water level rose gradually, never reaching higher than Gatica's knees. When the wave retreated, Gatica allowed himself the luxury of hope.
The next wave was a reality check. Gatica heard it first, hurtling like a fierce rain pounding on rocks. He turned to see an accelerating wall of water about 25 feet tall. It headed slightly south and hit the town directly, carving a path of destruction two miles inland, shoving aside boats and trucks and houses and everything else in its way.
What was a calamity for the town was another brief reprieve for the islanders. This time, the fast-retreating waters reached Gatica's waist, but he and others were able to maintain their tree-hold.
A deadly wave
Then the third wave came, bearing down like a locomotive. Gatica said he braced himself and kissed his wife. "That was the last time I saw her."
There was no resisting. "The wave just ejected us. It was that fast."
For a few seconds, at least, Gatica managed to hang on to his daughter, even as the two were being turned upside down, battered by logs and debris, swallowing water.
Then, another wave struck, or perhaps part of the third one, knocking the girl loose.