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‘Run! Run! Maremoto!’ Tsunami!

Sergio Poblete stared in lingering disbelief Monday at a once-pleasant park transformed into a wasteland of debris -- twisted cars and trucks, felled trees, parts of houses and a 20-foot fishing boat pushed half a mile from its river berth.

“We are alone, abandoned,” lamented Poblete, a machine operator who, like most everyone else in this coastal city, has seen his orderly life shattered by Saturday’s massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

This city of 55,000, whose death toll is expected to exceed 500, may well be the community hardest hit by the magnitude 8.8 quake that struck Chile. The temblor was quickly followed by Pacific Ocean waves that officials in Constitucion say reached 30 feet in height.

Many residents complain that the national government has failed to respond adequately to the double blow that struck their lumber and fishing town.

“Here we suffered twice -- the earthquake and the maremoto,” or tsunami, said Cesar Arrellano, a municipal comptroller in the relatively unscathed City Hall. “It seems everyone has forgotten about us. Maybe that’s because we’re out of contact.”

President Michelle Bachelet and other officials have expressed grave concern for the fate of much-larger Concepcion, farther down the coast. Residents in Constitucion say the primary aid thus far has been a heightened police presence and some rescue units.

The earthquake knocked down and damaged hundreds of buildings here while the ensuing tsunami cut a 1 1/2 -mile swath of destruction through the town, dragging everything and everyone in its wake as the Maule River surged with seawater.

The once heavily populated coastal zone, where vacationers and residents have long strolled on a seaside walk, is a jumbled mass of debris. More than 90% of the city’s downtown buildings were destroyed.

On Monday, there was no electricity, phone service or running water; bodies remained trapped in collapsed buildings.

The dead are being laid out in silver-colored vinyl bags on a school basketball court that has been transformed into a makeshift morgue.

Victor Lucero, 50, stood outside an adobe building where, he said, his daughter, son-in- law and two grandchildren lay entombed. He flashed a color photograph of the children, Giovanny, 7, and Constanza, 4, that he showed to anyone who stopped to talk. Both were killed when the residence collapsed, he said.

Inside, police were helping to dig out his loved ones, but the building was precarious and prone to further collapse.

“I just can’t take this waiting,” he said, “just waiting for someone to help me bring my daughter and my grandchildren out.”

There was no sign of professional counselors to help Lucero and others who have lost family members. But there were signs of chaos.

At one major supermarket Monday, officials said, thieves caused a fire, setting off fears that a gas main might blow up.

People ran from a nearby market carrying provisions, saying they were acting out of necessity, not greed.

“I’m a middle-class woman. I would never do anything like this,” said a woman who gave her name as Pilar, as she scampered away with two plastic bags filled with soft drinks, lettuce and canned goods.

“We all have families to feed, and there is no one to help.”

Police, including horseback units, sought to maintain a semblance of order. Authorities declared a 7 p.m. curfew.

Some shop owners guarded their wares, though most markets already have been ransacked.

“I’d rather give everything away to people who deserve it than have someone steal it who didn’t need it,” said Ilsa Urra, 58, a minimarket owner was among a group of shopkeepers armed with clubs sitting around a fire.

“Most people here are decent. But there are criminals, too, taking advantage.”

Few rescue teams were visible, and although some volunteers were delivering water, there was no organized distribution in sight.

On Isla Orrego, a low-lying island about 200 yards offshore, authorities say scores may have perished at their campsites in the early morning quake.

The campers had been there to celebrate the traditional end of the South American summer, known as Venetian Night.

In the area near the Maule River, survivors spoke about the horrors of the tsunami.

“We lost our home. Everyone living within two blocks of the river lost their homes,” said Lizette Pinochet, who recounted how she and others dashed away in pajamas and bare feet as neighbors warned: “Run! Run! Maremoto! Maremoto!”

The first waves struck about 15 minutes after the quake, residents said.

The lapse appeared to give many a chance to escape. But not Pinochet’s 84-year-old grandfather, who never left his home.

“I ran by his house, but my main concern was that my children were all right,” she said. “Thank God the young survived.”

She identified her grandfather’s body early Monday at the makeshift morgue.

About two dozen bodies lay on the basketball court. A board outside the school listed the names of those identified as dead. Others came forward with the names of missing loved ones who are believed to have perished.

Maria Graciela Ceballos, 27, was overcome with tears after she identified the remains of her mother, Graciela Aguilar, 65.

Aguilar perished when a wall fell on her in her home, the daughter said.

“But I know my mother died in peace,” said Ceballos, tears falling. “We found rosary beads in her hands. She was praying when she died.”

Ceballos, a paramedic, said the city was unprepared for the scale of the disaster, despite its location in a seismic zone and signs that warn people to flee toward higher ground in case of a tsunami-generating earthquake.

“Constitucion just wasn’t ready for this,” Ceballos said. “The city wasn’t prepared.”

  • Audio slide show: Photographer’s report from earthquake zone Constitucion, Chile
  • patrick.mcdonnell

    @latimes.com


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