Image: Tsunami damage
Roberto Candia  /  AP
Rosa Neira, 36, stands in front of a house damaged by the tsunami that hit Pelluhue, about 200 miles southwest of Santiago, Chile, on Sunday.
updated 2/28/2010 10:06:59 PM ET 2010-03-01T03:06:59

Chile's defense minister said Sunday that the navy made a mistake by not immediately issuing a tsunami warning after a mammoth earthquake, a step that could have helped coastal villagers flee to higher ground sooner.

Francisco Vidal said, however, that an alarm was later sounded by port captains. He said that saved hundreds if not thousands of lives.

"The navy committed an error in not alerting the tsunami," Vidal said at a news conference.

Immediately after Saturday's magnitude-8.8 quake, President Michelle Bachelet played down the threat of a tsunami, saying large waves were expected but no tsunami.

However, several coastal communities were smashed into by what authorities later recognized were tsunami waves.

Vidal said that fortunately the navy has an emergency plan that allows navy officials in each port to sound alarms automatically when a rise in the sea is observed without waiting for an order from above. In this case, port captains sounded an alarm alerting coastal populations.

"With this system, in spite of the diagnostic error, the people could be warned to head to the hills," Vidal said.

Thirty minutes passed between the quake and waves that inundated coastal towns.

Many of the more than 708 known dead from the quake were in Chile's coastal regions swamped by the tsunami. Among those hit were San Juan Bautista village on Robinson Crusoe Island, the port of Talcahuano and Vichato in the BioBio region.

The surge of water raced across the Pacific, leading officials in 53 nations to post warnings. But the waves proved small as they moved past Hawaii and on to such places as Australia, Tonga, Japan and Russia.

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