Tsunami swept away fleeing bus full of retirees

Image: Police officers search for victims in Pelluhue
Police officers search on Sunday for victims in Pelluhue, Chile, where the missing include several dozen retirees.Roberto Candia / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The 40 retirees enjoying summer vacation at a seaside campground nestled under pine trees knew they had to move fast after Chile's powerful earthquake struck.

They didn't make it. The tsunami came in three waves, surging 200 yards into this Pacific Ocean resort town and dragging away the bus they'd piled into, hoping to get to high ground. Most of those inside were tourists, and only five of their bodies had been found by Monday, firefighters and witnesses said.

Pelluhue's horror underscored the destruction wrought by Saturday's pre-dawn 8.8-magnitude quake and the tsunami that ravaged communities along Chile's south-central coast — those closest to the quake's epicenter.

Chile's death toll was raised on Tuesday to 795, up from 723 on Monday, and most died in the wine-growing Maule region that includes Pelluhue.

Survivors here found about 20 bodies, and an estimated 300 homes were destroyed. Most residents were aware of the tsunami threat; street signs pointed to the nearest tsunami evacuation route. The ruins of homes, television sets, clothes, dishwaters and dead fish cover the town's black sand beaches.

"We ran through the highest part of town, yelling, 'Get out of your homes!'" said Claudio Escalona, 43, who fled his home near the campground with his wife and daughters. "About 20 minutes later came three waves, two of them huge, about 18 feet each, and a third even bigger. That one went into everything."

"You could hear the screams of children, women, everyone," Escalona said. "There were the screams, and then a tremendous silence."

Food is scarce
Destruction is widespread and food scarce all along the coast — in towns like Talca and Cauquenes, Curico and San Javier. In Curanipe, the local church served as a morgue. In Cauquenes, people quickly buried their dead because the funeral home had no electricity.

The region's biggest city, Concepcion, suffered waves of looting before some 1,500 troops arrived to enforce an 8 p.m. to noon curfew that finally brought calm by Tuesday. Nearly every store had been looted, some even set on fire, in a city still lacking food, water and electricity.

President Michelle Bachelet said 14,000 soldiers and marines were deployed for security across the region and authorities were flying hundreds of tons of food, water and other basics into the region.

She met later with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who brought in 20 satellite telephones and promised much more aid to come. Argentina, Brazil and Peru were already preparing cargo-planeloads of supplies, hospitals and doctors to fly in.

After the quake rocked the gritty port town of Talcahuano, Marioli Gatica and her extended family huddled in a circle on the floor of their seaside wooden home, listening to the radio by a lantern's light.

They heard firefighters urging citizens to stay calm and stay inside. They heard nothing about a tsunami — until it slammed into their house with an unearthly roar. Gatica's house exploded with water. The family was swept below the surface, swirling amid loose ship containers and other heavy debris that smashed buildings into oblivion all around them.

"We were sitting there one moment and the next I looked up into the water and saw cables and furniture floating," Gatica said.

Two of the giant containers crushed Gatica's home. A third grounded between the ocean and where she floated, keeping the retreating tsunami from dragging her and other relatives out to sea. Her 11-year-old daughter, Ninoska Elgueta, clung to a tree as the wave retreated.

All the family survived except Gatica's 76-year-old mother, Nery Valdebenito, Gatica said. "I think my mother is trapped beneath" the house.

Firefighters with search dogs examined the ruins of her home. The group leader drew his finger across his neck: No one alive there.

Nearly entire town homeless
Close to 80 percent of Talcahuano's 180,000 people are homeless, with 10,000 homes uninhabitable and hundreds more destroyed, Mayor Gaston Saavedra said.

"The port is destroyed. The streets, collapsed. City buildings, destroyed," Saavedra said.

Chile's defense minister has said the navy made a mistake by not immediately activating a tsunami warning. He said port captains who did call warnings in several coastal towns saved hundreds of lives.

In the village of Dichato, teenagers drinking on the beach were the first to shout the warning when they saw a horseshoe-shaped bay empty about an hour after the quake. They ran through the streets, screaming. Police joined them, using megaphones.

The water rose steadily, surging above the second floors of homes and lifting them off their foundations. Cars were stacked three high in the streets. Miles inland along a river valley, cows munched next to marooned boats, refrigerators, sofas and other debris.

"The maritime radio said there wouldn't be a tsunami," said Rogilio Reyes, who was warned off by the teenagers.

Dichato Mayor Eduardo Aguilera said 49 people were missing and 800 homes were destroyed. Some people fled to high ground, only to return too early and get caught by the tsunami, he said.

The World Health Organization said it expected the death toll to rise as communications improve. For survivors, it said access to health services will be a major challenge.

In Geneva, U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said Chile was seeking temporary bridges, field hospitals, satellite phones, electric generators, damage assessment teams, water purification systems, field kitchens and dialysis centers.