A strong earthquake shook Central America on Saturday morning, leaving at least 61 people dead and 1,200 missing, according to the Red Cross.
Most of the missing people lived in houses that were buried when deforested cliffs slid into a neighborhood in Nueva San Salvador, a suburb of this capital, said Red Cross spokesman Carlos Lopez Mendoza. Other scattered deaths were reported throughout El Salvador and in neighboring Guatemala. A dozen passengers died in a bus that was buried in a landslide.
Aftershocks continued throughout the day. El Salvador’s only commercial airport was closed because of damage to runways and to the control tower, and roads to the capital were blocked by landslides.
The earthquake was reported to have a preliminary magnitude of 7.6, with an epicenter 20 miles off the southern coast of El Salvador, when it struck at 11:35 a.m. Electricity was interrupted for several hours throughout the country.
President Francisco Flores declared a national emergency. Interior Minister Mario Acosta Oertel said El Salvador’s emergency personnel were not sufficient to cope with the disaster and called on private citizens to help.
International volunteers were expected to arrive today from the United States, Panama and Mexico, he said.
On Saturday, the downtown areas of the capital that were destroyed in a 1986 earthquake--which killed at least 1,400 people and injured 10,000--escaped relatively unscathed. This time, the worst destruction appeared to be in a middle-class suburban neighborhood north of the capital. The quake caused land from a hill of the Balsamo mountain range--deforested by construction activity--to fall on the Las Colinas neighborhood.
“When the earthquake stopped, I heard a sound and went out to see what was happening,” said Reinaldo Maradiaga, 35, who lives in Colinas. “It was as if someone had opened a faucet. I watched [the landslide] come closer. The dirt stopped a yard from my house. It was terrible.”
Nearby residents brought shovels and wheelbarrows to the site to dig through the ruins, looking for survivors.
In San Miguel, part of a hospital collapsed. In Santa Ana, the 116-year-old El Calvario church crumbled, killing at least one employee, a church official said.
In Las Colinas, there were fears that the death toll would rise as the digging continued.
“It has been three hours, and the government has not provided any help,” said Ruth Calsin, 24, one of the volunteers who was shoveling. She was looking desperately for her 12-year-old cousin in the rubble where the girl’s house used to be.
“Whole families have been buried,” Calsin said.
David Lara, who was coordinating efforts for the Green Cross emergency organization, watched the volunteers pessimistically.
“I don’t believe that we are going to rescue live victims,” he said. “It is not likely that we will find injured people.”
But hours later, two survivors were found.
By midafternoon, 15 bodies had been recovered from the remains of the neighborhood.
Some neighbors called the government irresponsible in the disaster and said its irresponsibility extended beyond its slowness in responding to the immediate emergency.
“About 400 houses have been buried because of the bulldozers,” said Candido Antonio Salinas, 60, who lives near the area where the landslide occurred. Just days before, Salinas and his neighbors had lost a lawsuit to halt construction on the hill above them.
“We’ve tried to stop them, and now, look at the consequences,” he said.
The consequences were tragic for Salvadorans such as Carmen de Marin, who cried continuously outside the ruins of her house.
“My son is buried,” she screamed. “Jaime is buried. I wasn’t here, just my son, because he was waiting for a telephone call from his father in the United States. . . . Help me get my son out.”