IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

For one congregation, no sanctuary

/ Source: NBC News and news services

Clouds of dust lingered over a hill of rubble that once was Pisco's San Clemente church before Wednesday's powerful earthquake sent its soaring ceiling tumbling down on hundreds of worshippers during a special Mass.

On the night of the 8-magnitude quake, the church was filled with 300 parishoners mourning the death of a neighbor. Father Jose Emilio Torrez Mota had just finished mass when the ground shook violently and the lights went out.

Two minutes later, the church was a rubble, burying 200 people, according to Pisco Mayor Juan Mendoza.

Father Mota says the roof first fell in. Then after the next tremor, the walls came down.

The priest survived by hiding under the heavy altar.

Pisco, a port city about 125 miles southeast of Lima, appeared hardest hit by the quake that killed at least 510 people in cities and hamlets of adobe and brick across Peru's southern desert.

On Friday, rescuers looked gingerly for survivors amid the remnants of the church's adobe walls. Rescuers laid out the dust-covered dead beneath bloodstained sheets and placed them side-by-side to be identified by relatives. 

"The dead are scattered by the dozens on the streets," said Mendoza.

People searching desperately for missing relatives opened the bags, some crying hysterically when they recognized a familiar face.

Watching closely was Carol Poma, who was still waiting for word about two nephews who were at the mass. She already knew that four other nephews, her brother, and her mother died there.

Few in the traumatized crowds would talk with journalists. One man clutched at the bodies of his wife and two small daughters after workers carried them from the rubble: "Why did you go? Why?"

For the rest of the town, the block-by-block search for more bodies and survivors continued.

At the trauma center, residents formed huge lines and endured long waits for a single piece of bread. According to Enrique Vidarte Flores, medical services director, about 500 people came for help.  “100 of them were children,” he said.

There were reports that in another part of town people were so desperate for food they looted a grocery store.

With aftershocks still being felt Friday, Peruvians are camping out in the town plaza, afraid to be near buildings still standing.