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

With more than 700 people reported dead, rescuers smashed through fallen walls and sawed into rubble Sunday in an urgent push to find survivors of the massive earthquake that roared through Chile a day earlier. Some 2 million were said to be displaced, injured or otherwise impaired by the disaster. Untold numbers remained missing.

Government forces struggled to contain looting in some of the most heavily damaged areas, dispatching the army to the task in Concepcion, Chile’s second-largest city. Large parts of the country remained without water or electricity. Tent triage centers were being set up around battered hospitals as authorities implored doctors to report to work to attend to the wounded and a series of strong aftershocks continued to rattle the disaster zone.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced that the death toll from one of the most powerful quakes on record had jumped to 708, nearly doubling as rescue crews reached remote, devastated towns close to the offshore epicenter. “These numbers will continue to grow,” she said.

In one such coastal community, Constitucion, as many as 350 people may have been killed by the quake and a tsunami that hit about half an hour later, covering shattered homes with thick mud, state television reported. Boats were tossed from the sea like paper toys, landing on the roofs of houses.

“This is an emergency without parallel in the history of Chile,” Bachelet said. “We will need everyone from the public and private sector . . . to join in a gigantic effort” to recover, she said, indicating for the first time that international aid will be welcomed.

Bachelet’s term ends March 11, when President-elect Sebastian Pinera takes charge.

The magnitude 8.8 quake, which hit before dawn Saturday, toppled buildings, buckled freeways, destroyed or severely damaged half a million homes and set off sirens thousands of miles away as governments scrambled to protect coastal residents from the ensuing tsunami. Even with a steady rattling of aftershocks, authorities lifted tsunami warnings Sunday after smaller-than-feared waves washed shores from Southern California to Hawaii and Japan. But Chilean authorities acknowledged that they had underestimated the potential for tsunami destruction here in places such as Constitucion and Robinson Crusoe Island.

Looting broke out Sunday in some of the most heavily damaged areas, where residents complained they were hungry and bereft of basic supplies. Crowds overran supermarkets in Concepcion, about 70 miles south of the epicenter, and were making off with food, water and diapers but also television sets. Several banks, pharmacies and gasoline stations were also hit. In nearby San Pedro, crowds swarmed a shopping mall like the day after Thanksgiving.

Police in armored vehicles sprayed looters with water and tear gas and made several arrests, mostly of young men.

“The people are desperate and say the only way is to come get stuff for themselves,” Concepcion resident Patricio Martinez told reporters. “We have money to buy it, but the big stores are closed, so what are we supposed to do?”

After nightfall in Concepcion, the wrecked city went quiet as residents appeared to heed the curfew and stay at home or in their makeshift camps. Rescuers continued to work through the night under the glow of floodlights.

Bachelet, after a six-hour emergency meeting with her Cabinet on Sunday, announced she was sending 10,000 troops into the Concepcion area and elsewhere to restore order and assist in recovering bodies and searching for survivors. Using the armed forces is always a sensitive topic in a country that lived under nearly two decades of military dictatorship.

On Saturday, she declared swaths of the country “catastrophe zones” and later issued a 30-day emergency decree for the quake zone. It allows the army to be in charge and to enforce a curfew. Hoping to ease panic, she said basic supplies including food would be distributed free of charge by supermarket chains in the largely soft-soil coastal states of Biobio and Maule where most of the deaths tabulated so far took place.

Earlier, the mayor of Concepcion, Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, issued a plea for help to squelch the pillaging. “It is out of control!” she told Chilean television.

More than 24 hours after the quake hit, reaching the hardest-hit sites was an arduous task. Traffic streamed slowly southward from Santiago along buckled roads and cracked overpasses, often making detours on rural side paths. The bus station in Santiago was swamped with Chileans trying to travel south or send food and supplies to their families; bus companies canceled most trips because of road conditions.

Carlos Puldoc, 33, was flying into Santiago in hopes of going south to Curico to check on his parents. It’s normally a two-hour drive but now could easily take twice as long as that.

“When I first heard about the earthquake I was obviously very worried about my mother and father, but after some trouble we finally were able to reach them on the cellphone,” Puldoc said. “Everything in their house and on their street was OK, but there is great damage in the city and the coastal region is in very bad shape.”

In the disaster zone, thousands of people slept outside, wrapped in blankets or with small campfires against the cold, forced from their homes by the structures’ precarious condition or by fear stoked by the aftershocks -- more than 100 of which registered magnitude 5 or higher, according to the Associated Press.

Among the rescue teams reaching Concepcion was the 42-member Santiago Firefighters Task Force, which recently returned to Chile from Haiti.

Efforts in Concepcion focused in part on a new, 15-story apartment building that collapsed onto one side. Neighbors reported hearing screams from beneath the rubble and feared that as many as 100 people were trapped inside.

Rescuers worked through the day Sunday slicing through concrete, consulting blueprints and pulling survivors as well as bodies -- eight of them -- from the rubble. At least 60 people were either rescued or emerged on their own power.

A few yards away, the looting reached a fever pitch. At first it seemed to be the work of the poor, but soon people who appeared to be more affluent joined in. Some people made off with raw meat, even though they had no way to cook or store it because of the lack of electricity and gas.

Jeanette Vega, deputy health minister, said at least eight major hospitals in central and southern Chile were evacuated because of felled walls, sagging ceilings and other destruction plus a lack of electrical power. That complicated care for the injured, whose numbers were swelled by car crashes as motorists navigated chopped-up roads without traffic lights.

“We really need generators for electricity,” Gustavo Ramirez of the Chilean Red Cross said. “We are doing everything we can, but the need is great.”

For all the destruction, Chileans were also picking themselves up and moving on. Commercial flights began to land sporadically at the main international airport, its two terminals rattled and cracked but its runways in good shape. The subway in Santiago, the capital, also resumed partial service after inspectors determined the tracks were not in need of repair.

In Santiago, sleek modern skyscrapers appeared unscathed. But older historic buildings of adobe or brick suffered. The facade crumbled on the elegant 100-year-old Bellas Artes, or Fine Arts, Museum, its stone banisters broken into rubble. Ten-foot cracks gashed the front of the nearby Opera House.

The cupola of the Divine Providence church had fallen to the ground. Residents in several parts of the capital Sunday were sweeping up glass on sidewalks in front of cracked facades.

Chile’s main seaport, oil refineries and the state-run Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, all shut operations temporarily. The securities exchange expected to function normally Monday.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would proceed with a planned visit to Chile and was scheduled to arrive in Santiago on Tuesday as part of a five-nation trip. A dinner with Bachelet was canceled, however.

The State Department discouraged tourist and nonessential travel by American citizens to Chile and urged those already here to contact their families or register at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago.

The United Nations said it had accounted for almost all of its 978 employees and consultants working in Chile and that no one was hurt or killed. However, several U.N. facilities were damaged.

Preliminary estimates of the losses ran as high as $30 billion, or about 15% of Chile’s GDP, according to a California-based risk-assessment group.

“While this constitutes a major disaster, Chile’s widespread adoption and enforcement of modern, seismic-resistant building practices has mitigated the potential for devastation,” the firm, Eqecat, said in a statement.

wilkinson@latimes.com

patrick.mcdonnell

@latimes.com

Special correspondent Lauren Williams in Santiago contributed to this report.


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