Grieving relatives laid coffins in the streets here Wednesday as Mexico began its recovery from a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that killed at least 29 people, injured 190 others and reduced parts of this colonial-era capital to heaps of brick and adobe rubble.
Overall, Mexico was lucky, because a combination of geography and seismology blunted the effects of one of the strongest earthquakes to strike the nation since a magnitude 8.1 temblor devastated Mexico City in 1985. The epicenter was about 60 miles off the coast of sparsely populated Colima state, and the westward slant of the shock waves meant that much of the temblor's energy was sent harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean.
About 10,000 people were reported to have lost their homes -- a tiny fraction of the population of the 13 states that felt the quake across western and central Mexico at 8:07 p.m. Tuesday.
Even in Colima, the hardest-hit city, most of the damage was limited to adobe and brick houses built in recent decades in and around the historic central core, which dates to 1522. Other parts of the city, home to 125,000 people, largely escaped serious structural damage.
In the city center Wednesday, army and civilian crews worked methodically on a hot, sticky day, knocking over structures that were about to fall, loading up and carting away debris. People gingerly entered damaged buildings to recover personal documents.
Ruben Barajas Pizano, a Colima state disaster relief coordinator, said he didn't believe any more people were trapped in the debris.
The 45-second temblor terrified people in a seismically active region who know the toll a quake can cause. For those who lost houses or loved ones, it was a devastating event.
Rosita Orozco, 90, sat on a wooden folding chair outside her two-story brick home, staring in disbelief at the damage. Several interior walls had collapsed in the aqua-colored structure where she had lived for 40 years.
"I have never had anything as bad as this in my life," she said. "We built it with a lot of sacrifice. I worked morning, noon and night."
Maria de la Luz Rueda Pena said she was in a local church when she felt the first vibrations Tuesday. "I could hear dragons inside the church," she said. "I really panicked. The noise I could hear, it was like demons."
Four people, including a 99-year-old man, died along a three-block stretch in the neighboring town of Villa de Alvarez when their homes were smashed into powder. In Tecoman, the town closest to the epicenter, a falling lamppost crushed a 90-year-old man. A collapsing brick ceiling killed an 18-month-old girl in Zapotitlan, in neighboring Jalisco state.
Maria Rodriguez Macia, 83, died beneath the rubble of her adobe home in Colima. Her family and others whose houses were severely damaged had nowhere to put their dead, so they placed coffins on tables outside on the street and put up makeshift altars with photographs of those killed.
"We're too afraid to have [the wake] inside," said her son, Vicente Rodriguez. "You felt how the ground moved just now."
More than 16 aftershocks, including two that registered magnitude 5.8 and 5.3, hit the region Wednesday, causing little additional damage but rattling the nerves of thousands of dazed residents who had slept little or not at all the night before.
Broken electrical wires dangled menacingly over some streets here, and parts of the city were hit by sporadic power outages. Plaster and terra cotta tiles covered the surface of many streets and sidewalks. Many buildings had disgorged huge chunks of plaster or adobe.
President Vicente Fox, who toured the city center Wednesday, said the "consequences of the quake were fortunately not as grave as had been expected." But people who gathered around him grew impatient as he tried to assure them that his government would help them rebuild.
"This is a trial of fire for you, Mr. President!" a man shouted.
"Don't you worry," Fox said. "I have put myself to this test. Try me, try me."
Deployed by the president, the Mexican army set up six shelters and sent dozens of medics, communications technicians and engineers to the area.
Colima Gov. Fernando Moreno declared an emergency in the state's five hardest-hit towns to speed the flow of a promised $2 million for reconstruction of housing. Schools throughout the state were closed at least until Monday so authorities can inspect them for damage.
Fox said resort hotels along the coast suffered no damage that should deter tourists, although hotels in the coastal town of Manzanillo, 35 miles southwest of Colima, reported some cracked walls and broken windows. Rockslides triggered by the quake closed Manzanillo's port.
The damage in Colima was selective. A few blocks from the worst of the wreckage, life followed the usual rhythms of a small provincial capital. Couples sat sipping sodas or coffee on the central town square, while young children fed the pigeons by a fountain. The mood of the city in general was one of calm.
Colima and the outlying towns and villages of the state appeared to have suffered the major share of casualties in the quake. Authorities said 26 people had been killed in Colima state, 12 of them in Colima city, the state capital. The others died in the surrounding towns of Villa de Alvarez, Tecoman and Coquimatlan, according to state officials.
Two people were reported dead in Jalisco state and one in Michoacan state.
The quake felled a bell tower in Coquimatlan and sent church bells toppling from a colonial-era church in Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, where dozens of homes were damaged. It also rocked Mexico City, 300 miles east of the epicenter, sending terrified residents fleeing into the streets. But there was little damage in the Mexican capital.
In Colima, Rick Alvarez, who is originally from Bakersfield, said that the earthquake came in waves followed by a loud bang as it rolled through one of the city's older streets.
"Everything went pitch black," he said.
"I felt like the epicenter was in my house," said Victoria Perez, a Colima resident who was in her home when the quake struck. Like many others, she ran immediately into the street. "Everybody cried and panicked."
Local civil defense officials advised many residents to remain outside their homes for the first 24 hours after the quake, and people piled their belongings on sidewalks for safekeeping. Some, such as Angelica Borbolla and her young son, Ludwig, pitched tents on the sidewalk.
Mexico's national seismological service put the quake's magnitude at 7.6, but the U.S. Geological Survey calculated it at 7.8.
Scientists said Tuesday's temblor was a classic case of a subduction zone quake, in which offshore tectonic plates are pulled beneath the continental plate. In this case, the offshore Cocos and Rivera plates were gradually squeezed and heated, resulting in the earthquake.
Javier Pacheco, chief seismologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the quake did little to stir up the sea, creating waves less than 3 feet high.
Even in coastal areas close to the offshore quake epicenter, the death toll was held down by the fact that most of the energy caused by the quake rupture went out to sea, rather than inland, said Caltech seismologist Egill Hauksson.
Times staff writers Kenneth Reich in Los Angeles and Richard Boudreaux in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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Quake Victims Aid
Several organizations in Los Angeles said Wednesday that they are accepting donations to aid victims of Tuesday night's earthquake in Mexico. Checks should note that the funds are earmarked to help Mexican quake victims. The agencies accepting donations are:
Colima Earthquake Relief Fund
Archdiocese of Los Angeles
c/o Msgr. Royale Vadakin, V.G.
3424 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90010
American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles
2700 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90057
8320 Melrose Ave., Suite 200
Los Angeles, CA 90069