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‘What the earthquake didn’t take... the sea took’

Image: A truck pushed by tidal waves
Saturday’s earthquake-triggered tsunami pushed this truck into a home in Constitucion, Chile.Roberto Candia / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

A public gym has been transformed into a makeshift morgue here after a surging tsunami devastated this picturesque Chilean coastal town, leaving hundreds of people missing and a fishing boat in the middle of a public square.

As many as 350 people are believed to have to have died in Constitucion alone.

"The tsunami destroyed almost everything on the seafront (and) the center of the town was completely destroyed," Mayor Hugo Tilleria, told state television, surrounded by the twisted wreckage of flattened homes. "This means lots of people still haven't been accounted for."

Many tourists are thought to have been visiting the resort and fishing town when the wave hit.

Officials say many of the more than 708 known dead from the quake were in Chile's coastal regions swamped by the tsunami.

Television images from small towns along the Pacific coast showed houses torn from their foundations, cars tossed around like toys and the ground covered in shattered wood and wet mud.

"More than 75 percent of the village is destroyed," said David Merino, a community leader in Dichato on the coast.

"After the earthquake there were three waves. The first two were big and didn't do much damage, but the last one almost wiped the village off the map," he said.

'My dreams here have died'
The Miami Herald reported that a 33-foot wall of water swept about five blocks into Constitucion.

Paula Riquelme, who was visiting Constitucion, told a local radio station that "the force of the sea was such that the occupants of the dwellings that remained standing found themselves surrounded by floating fish and seaweed."

Houses about 500 yards from the beach were filled with water, mud and sand on Sunday, Dow Jones Newswires reported.

Looters reportedly targeted a local supermarket and the building was apparently set on fire.

Karen Espinoza, owner of a bakery that was ransacked, said that "Constitucion has died."

"My dreams here have died," she told Dow Jones. "What the earthquake didn't take away, the sea took away. And what the sea didn't take, the looters did."

Josselin Benavides, 14, who is originally from Constitucion but now lives in Santiago, told Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper that "everything is destroyed" in her hometown.

"I look at the news and I recognize nothing,” she added.

Benavides hadn't heard from her mother, 10-year-old sister, uncles and cousins since the tsunami hit the town, which is located north of the quake's epicenter. The Globe and Mail reported that a fishing boat had been left in a public square.

The area around Constitucion also features coal and copper mines.

Navy error?
Defense Minister Francisco Vidal acknowledged the navy made a mistake by not immediately activating a tsunami warning after the quake hit before dawn Saturday. Port captains in several coastal towns did, saving what Vidal called hundreds of lives.

Thirty minutes passed between the quake and a wave that inundated coastal towns, leaving behind sticks, scraps of metal and masonry houses ripped in two.

A beachside carnival in the village of Lloca was swamped in the tsunami. A carousel was twisted on its side and a Ferris wheel rose above the muddy wreckage.

Officials said at least eight people died and eight were missing on Robinson Crusoe Island, where it the tsunami drove the sea almost 2 miles into the town of San Juan Bautista.

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.