The search begins for earthquake survivors

Click to follow
The Independent US

Rescue workers and distraught family members were clawing frantically through layers of mud on a heavily populated hillside above San Salvador yesterday after a powerful earthquake that struck the small Central American country on Saturday triggered landslides across the region.

Rescue workers and distraught family members were clawing frantically through layers of mud on a heavily populated hillside above San Salvador yesterday after a powerful earthquake that struck the small Central American country on Saturday triggered landslides across the region.

It killed at least 250 people and left hundreds, maybe thousands of others unaccounted for. The Red Cross said yesterday a possible 1,200 people were still missing.

Police in El Salvador said more than 16,000 buildings had been damaged by the earthquake, which was was centred off the country's southern coast and measured 7.6 on the Richter scale. Two fatalities were reported in Guatemala also.

A spokeswoman for the US embassy in El Salvador said: "It was a shockingly strong earthquake that seemed to last for ages. Pictures and mirrors were bouncing off the walls. It appears that the worst is not here in the capital but in the countryside."

With communications thrown into chaos and government aid painfully slow in arriving, neighbours, relatives and volunteers used shovels, wheelbarrows, sticks and even their bare hands to look for survivors in the hilltop suburb of Las Colinas, on the western edge of the Salvadorean capital. An estimated 400 homes in the area were buried by the torrent of sludge that thundered off the Balsamo mountain range.

"My boy is in there! Help me! Help me!" 41-year-old Carmen de Marin wailed on the mud-engulfed spot where her house had once stood.

Others wandered around helplessly, unsure where to begin in their search for missing relatives and friends. "I don't know where to dig because I don't know where the house is," said Arturo Magana, 25, who was trying to find his 18-year-old brother Jaime.

The earthquake first struck on Saturday morning, with several smaller aftershocks following in the next few hours. With its epicentre about 20 miles off the southern coast of El Salvador, it did relatively little damage to the high-rise buildings and earthquake-proofed homes of downtown San Salvador, which was largely rebuilt after a devastating quake in 1986. But in the hillside suburbs and countryside, it caused deforested hillsides to turn into rivers of mud, cutting off roads, knocking out bridges and burying an unknown numbers of homes. Twelve passengers died in a bus that was buried in a landslide. In Sosonati, about 35 miles northwest of the capital, 13 people were reported dead and 200 more went to the local hospital, where a wall collapsed. In nearby Santa Ana, the 116-year-old church of El Calvario crumbled, killing at least one.

Electricity and phone lines were cut off for several hours, and service resumed only intermittently. San Salvador's airport was closed because of damage to the runways and control tower. President Francisco Flores declared a national state of emergency and begged the international community to send in mudslide specialists with heavy digging equipment.

Yesterday, Mexico sent an initial relief plane, but other offers of aid - from the United States and Spain - were on hold until a suitable landing site for aeroplanes could be identified.

The earthquake could be felt strongly in Honduras and as far away as Mexico City.

The gravest damage, however, was in newly constructed lower middle-class residential areas on the outskirts of San Salvador - areas where the official policy of tree-cutting on hillsides to make way for housing projects has recently come in for heavy criticism from environmentalists and local residents' associations.

In Las Colinas, the hill-clearing left no obstacles inthe path of the mudslide, and residents watched helplesslyas they saw entire blocks of houses succumb to the onslaught.

"I felt the shock, and then the whole hill collapsed and covered the houses," said Candido Salinas, 60, watching as rescue workers pulled bodies from the shattered remnants of homes all along his street.

"It was as if someone had turned on a tap," said Reinaldo Maradiago, a 35-year-old resident of the area.

"I just watched as it come closer. The dirt stopped a yard from my house. It was terrible." At first, rescue workers held out little hope of digging anybody out alive.

As Saturday turned into Sunday, however, three people had been pulled free and were recovering in hospitals. Amid the massive destruction, rescues seemed like small triumphs. More than 60 corpses were also extracted, some badly deformed, and were laid out in a yard.

The disaster struck just over two years after Hurricane Mitch, which swept through Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador and left 11,000 people dead and a massive trail of devastation. Then, as now, deforestation and the inefficiency of government rescue efforts were blamed for adding to the damage.

In Las Colinas, a group of residents filed a lawsuit just a few days ago to try to stop local authorities chopping down more trees to make room for new houses.

Comments