Desperation replaces fear as death toll from quake hits 708
Rescue efforts under way as up to two million people affected
Published 01/03/2010 | 05:00
DESPERATION and sporadic lawlessness were replacing the fear of falling masonry in towns across Chile last night, as hundreds of thousands of people struggled to find shelter, food and drinking water.
The country's president, Michelle Bachelet, said the death toll from one of the most powerful earthquakes ever to hit Chile had leapt to 708. State TV reported that 300 people may have died in the small coastal city of Constitucion alone.
The earthquake struck in the early hours of Saturday and measured 8.8 on the Richter Scale. According to government officials, as many as two million people have been affected or displaced.
The Chilean government continues to turn down international offers of assistance. Although life is gradually returning to something close to normality in the capital, Santiago, cities such as Constitucion and Concepcion have suffered widespread damage to buildings, roads and bridges.
The risk of disorder was highlighted by a number of incidents of looting. Police responded with water cannons and tear gas.
In Concepcion, the closest large metropolis to the epicentre of the quake, rescue workers toiled with jack-hammers and small bulldozers to pull residents out of a recently completed 15-storey apartment block that had toppled onto its back.
Officials said as many as 80 people remained trapped in the wreckage. So far, 25 people have emerged alive and four bodies have been taken out.
Paulo Klein, who is leading a group of rescue specialists from the port city of Puerto Montt, said: "It's very difficult working in the dark with aftershocks, and inside it's complicated.
"The apartments are totally destroyed. You have to work with great caution."
Rosa Molino said she and her family spent Saturday night outdoors, huddled on the patio of her heavily damaged house in the village of Portozuelo, about 30 miles from the coast.
Recalling the moment of the earthquake, she said: "I got out of bed and was immediately knocked to the ground by the shaking. My grandson came and helped me down the stairs and out of the house."
She has not dared go back inside since then, as aftershocks continue to rattle the region.
Ms Molino said around 60 houses had been completely destroyed in her village and basics such as bread and water were being sold at prices at least four times higher than normal.
Ruptured power and water lines, as well as impassable roads and bridges, spelled days of worsening conditions for survivors in some areas.
The country's main airport has reopened to flights operated by Chile's LAN Airlines.
Most of the serious damage in Santiago was visible on older buildings, including churches and the main university.
Newer structures, which were built to much stricter anti-seismic codes, suffered cracks and broken windows only.
Following the quake, tsunami alerts caused hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their shoreline homes in countries right across the Pacific Ocean.
But even in those places where the danger had seemed elevated, including Hawaii and Japan, the waves, once they arrived, were relatively small and did little damage.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, is expected to meet President Bachelet and reiterate the US offer of aid.