Destination Chile: Two L. A. Times journalists hustle to the earthquake zone

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Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell, a veteran foreign correspondent, scrambled to quickly get from Los Angeles to Chile to cover the massive earthquake that struck there last weekend. McDonnell and Times photographer Michael Robinson Chavez have spent the past few days on the ground reporting on the chaos and efforts to bring order and deliver aid. McDonnell filed the following dispatch on how the pair managed to get to Chile for the big story:

Sometimes, reporting on breaking news is almost as much about the logistics of getting to the location as actually getting the story. After all, if you can’t get there, what difference does it make how good the story is, or was?


It’s often a dilemma for reporters, especially those working abroad who repeatedly grapple with what many travelers see: capricious airplane schedules, unreliable airports and grumpy ticket counter personnel, among other hurdles. Disasters and wars multiply the challenge: Airports shut down, roads are closed, officials and travel bureaucrats go into a deny-access mode.

That’s a bit of background for a small logistics tale about covering the Chilean earthquake. A photographer colleague and I were tasked Saturday with getting to Chile to cover the big quake. Problem was, we were in Los Angeles, half a world way, or so it seemed. So how to get there as quickly as possible? We were already losing time compared with journalists based in South America.

Fortunately, we found a flight on LAN Airlines leaving about noon, nonstop to Lima, Peru. Normally, Lima is an ideal point from which to enter Chile. But the airport in Santiago, the Chilean capital, was shut down because of the quake. And so was LAN’s ticketing function.

From experience, I knew that American Airlines had a ticket-sharing relationship with LAN. American accepted our payment, and soon we were on our way to Lima, confident we would find a way into Chile, if not directly into Santiago, perhaps via Buenos Aires and overland through the Andes.

Sometimes a good break like this portends a string of good luck, I thought. Not so fast.

The chaotic airport in Lima initially offered no way out. No flights to Santiago. No possibility of getting on the overbooked flights to Buenos Aires. The traditional tools of charm, cajoling and even flashing some greenbacks didn’t seem to work.

The quake had sown disarray and turmoil. Stranded passengers had been waiting for days and were angry. A ticket salesclerk seemed to relish our anguish. He kept encouraging us to try different Internet and telephone methods, but in the end nothing worked. I wondered if he was playing with our heads, savoring his spoiler role in the logistics drama.

We spent the night in the airport, exhausting possibilities, going slowly mad. We seriously contemplated a route through Brazil, then Buenos Aires, then overland to Chile. Who knows when we would have arrived?

Desperate, we jumped on a flight to Tacna, Peru, on the border with Chile. From there we could cross the border into Chile in a taxi, and see if there was a plane going south from Arica, the Chilean border city. It didn’t seem very promising. We’d heard that no one was flying in Chile. Most likely, we’d end up having to take a 30-hour road trip through the Atacama desert, drier than the Sahara, they say, before even arriving in Santiago — still hundreds of miles of bad roads away from the earthquake zone.

The flight to Tacna detoured through Cusco, a lovely mountain city with pleasant hotels and first-class restaurants. I felt melancholy seeing the Inca capital disappear in the window as the plane lifted off for cheerless Tacna.

The border crossing was painless enough, and we found a genial taxi man, Andres, who knew how to cut corners. But the relentlessly harsh light and the gloomy milieu brought back memories of the Jordan-Iraq border crossing, a sinister place I had negotiated many times. This didn’t seem promising. The airport at Arica, on the Chilean side, looked like it had been left over from the dawn of aviation, preserved somehow in the dry heat. Missing were any sign of aircraft, or people.

We trudged into the terminal, sure that this was an exercise in futility. All the LAN counters were closed. But we noticed a few folks huddled at a side counter of Sky Airline, a regional carrier. We ambled up to the counter. A woman, apparently a passenger, passed by carrying a boarding pass for … Santiago!

Outside, beyond our view, an old Boeing workhorse was getting ready to take wing south to the Chilean capital. Yes, the woman at the counter said, there might be room for two more. Remarkably, completely unexpectedly, it all turned out to be true. Ten minutes later — a stop for a soft drink or a cigarette — and we would have missed this unscheduled flight, our deliverance, the freedom bird, as my colleague christened it. We boarded a near-full flight that was making final preparations to take off. It was like stepping into some alternate reality zone. Once aloft, we watched the narrow ribbon of an endless road south that we had fortuitously avoided. We were in Santiago in three hours.

It was time to start covering the devastation of the earthquake and a tsunami that followed, wreaking havoc.

More logistical challenges lay ahead.

-- Patrick J. McDonnell in Concepcion, Chile

More of the Times coverage of the Chile earthquake:

Chile sends army into post-quake chaos

‘Run! Run! Maremoto!’ Tsunami!

Chile scrambles to distribute aid, quell disorder

Rescuers search for Chile quake survivors; death toll jumps to 708

Audio slide show: Photographer’s report from earthquake zone Constitucion, Chile