Survivors’ stories begin to emerge from the rubble

Emergency workers in race to find signs of life as four Britons are said to be missing

Gideon Long,David Usborne
Tuesday 02 March 2010 01:00

When the earth began to buckle, Alberto Rozas instinctively grabbed his seven-year-old daughter and waited in the bathroom for it to be over. He knows now that he can bless his stars for what happened next. The newly-built tower fell like an oak in a gale, plunging father and daughter an equivalent of 13 stories to the ground.

"The earthquake and the fall were one single, horrible thing," recalled Mr Rozas about the moment the Rio Alta tower was toppled and the seconds when he and his daughter, Fernanda, were falling through space. "I held on to her and she never let me go." When the 70-unit building stopped its plunge – and floors had become vertical walls – Mr Rozas saw moonlight through a shattered window. He and his daughter were able to crawl to safety with little more than scratches.

The pair are among 25 people to have emerged from the building alive. But the rescue effort continued at the tower block in the city of Concepcion, with emergency workers racing against time to try to find as many as 50 residents still thought to be inside.

Where large triangular holes had been cut into the building's side, emergency crews listened for signs of life and, where possible, crawled inside to try to probe the crushed and homes. A voice was heard in the morning from number 602. On another floor a dog barked.

Four Britons were reported missing last night by a website for surfers in the resort of Pichilemu, including Scottish couple Kirsty Duff and Dave Sandercock. "At the moment we have no confirmed reports of any British casualties," a spokesman for the UK ambassador, Jon Benjamin, said.

While the tower in Concepcion and the plight of those inside kept the nation in its thrall a full two days after the 8.8 magnitude quake – the fifth largest ever recorded – a wider and increasingly grim picture of the human and physical loss was emerging across a swathe of coastal Chile to the south of the capital, Santiago. The National Emergency Office said the official death toll had risen to 723, with 19 others missing, but warned it could go higher still.

Aside from the devastation of collapsed homes, roads and bridges, the authorities were getting a fuller understanding of the destruction caused by the tsunami waves that roared into coastal towns and villages about 30 minutes after the quake itself, tearing homes from their foundations and leaving boats stranded inland in streets and town squares.

Among communities swamped by the suddenly surging sea were Dichato, Iloca and Llo-Lleo. While rescue efforts remained a top priority in Concepcion, the government was also moving quickly last night to quell looting and civil unrest there and in other towns, with the assistance of army troops deployed by President Michelle Bachelet. A dusk-to-dawn curfew in the Bio Bio region first imposed on Sunday was to be repeated last night, officials said, in an effort to restore and maintain order.

The Mayor of Concepcion, Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe, reported that the town was ready to begin distributing food rations to all the town's residents. The hope was that by ensuring food supplies, the rampages into food shops and supermarkets seen earlier would subside. The mayor nonetheless said there would be more banditry in her town without a greater influx of soldiers.

The government meanwhile formally asked the United Nations for help. A UN spokesman in Geneva, Elisabeth Byrs, said Chile was seeking temporary bridges, field hospitals, satellite phones, electric generators, damage assessment teams, water purification systems, field kitchens and dialysis centres.

A domestic aid effort suffered a setback when a small plane carrying six people near Concepcion, killing all those on board. The plane, which was carrying an aid and assessment team, crashed close to the nearby town of Tome yesterday afternoon, local media reported.

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, is expected to arrive in Santiago this morning as part of a pre-arranged tour of Latin American countries. She is to meet President Bachelet and President-elect Sebastian Pinera, who is due to be sworn in later this month. It is unclear whether Mrs Clinton, who will bring telecommunications equipment with her to help the rescue effort, will venture beyond Santiago's airport.

Argentina said last night it was sending six aircraft loaded with a field hospital, 55 doctors and water treatment plants. Officials said there was an urgent need for field hospitals in Concepcion, which was especially badly hit, as well as the towns of Talca and Curico. All were close to the epicentre that was just off the Chilean coast. As much as 80 per cent of the buildings in towns in the region were destroyed by the quake or the tsunami, officials said.

Back at the felled apartment tower in Concepcion, rescue crews periodically attempted to impose silence in the surrounding streets so anyone calling from inside could be heard. Faint voices from the one apartment gave new hope that more survivors could still come out alive. "There was dust, noise, everything falling," Mr Rozas said. "We went to the bathroom doorway. Then there was the fall. Finally it stopped."

After escaping the building, he took his daughter to his mother's house and then returned to help rescue workers understand the geography of the apartments inside. He, like others yesterday, wondered why a building that opened only last June could have fallen so quickly when the quake struck. "The construction was obviously poor," he said.

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