Tsunami swept away fleeing bus

Retirees on vacation perish under waves; food scarcity hits Chile quake survivors

Tsunami swept away fleeing bus

 
A boat lies marooned on a street in Talcahuano, Chile, on Monday, after an 8.8-magnitude earthquake on Saturday triggered a tsunami. AP They didn’t make it. The tsunami came in three waves, surging 200 metres into this Pacific Ocean resort town and dragging away the bus they had piled into, hoping to get to high ground. Most of those inside were tourists, and only five of their bodies had been found by Monday, firefighters and witnesses said.

Pelluhue’s horror underscored the destruction wrought by Saturday’s pre-dawn 8.8-magnitude quake and the tsunami that ravaged communities along Chile’s south-central coast — those closest to the quake’s epicentre. Chile’s death toll reached 723, and most died in the wine-growing Maule region that includes Pelluhue.

Widespread destruction

Survivors here found about 20 bodies, and an estimated 300 homes were destroyed. Most residents were aware of the tsunami threat; street signs pointed to the nearest tsunami evacuation route. The ruins of homes, television sets, clothes, dishwaters and dead fish cover the town’s black sand beaches.

“We ran through the highest part of town, yelling, ‘Get out of your homes!’” said Claudio Escalona, 43, who fled his home near the campground with his wife and daughters, ages 4 and 6. “About 20 minutes later came three waves, two of them huge, about 6 metres each, and a third even bigger. That one went into everything. You could hear the screams of children, women, everyone,” Escalona said. “There were the screams, and then a tremendous silence.”

Destruction is widespread and food scarce all along the coast — in towns like Talca and Cauquenes, Curico and San Javier. In Curanipe, the local church served as a morgue. In Cauquenes, people quickly buried their dead because the funeral home had no electricity.

All of a sudden

After the quake rocked the gritty port town of Talcahuano, Marioli Gatica and her extended family huddled in a circle on the floor of their seaside wooden home, listening to the radio by a lantern’s light.

They heard firefighters urging citizens to stay calm and stay inside. They heard nothing about a tsunami — until it slammed into their house with an unearthly roar. Gatica’s house exploded with water. The family was swept below the surface, swirling amid loose ship containers and other debris.

“We were sitting there one moment and the next I looked up into the water and saw cables and furniture floating,” Gatica said.

Chile’s defence minister has said the navy made a mistake by not immediately activating a tsunami warning. He said port captains who did call warnings in several coastal towns saved hundreds of lives.

The World Health Organisation said it expected the death toll to rise as communications improve.

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