CONCEPCION, Chile – Heroism and banditry mingled on Chile’s shattered streets Sunday as rescuers braved aftershocks digging for survivors and the government sent soldiers to quell looting. The death toll climbed to 708 in one of the biggest earthquakes in centuries.
In the hard-hit city of Concepcion, firefighters pulling survivors from a toppled apartment block were forced to pause because of tear gas fired to stop looters, who were wheeling off everything from microwave ovens to canned milk at a damaged supermarket across the street.
Efforts to determine the full scope of destruction were undermined by an endless string of terrifying aftershocks that continued to turn buildings into rubble. Officials said 500,000 houses were destroyed or badly damaged, and President Michele Bachelet said “a growing number” of people were listed as missing.
“We are facing a catastrophe of such unthinkable magnitude that it will require a giant effort” to recover, Bachelet said after meeting for six hours with ministers and generals in La Moneda Palace, itself chipped and cracked.
She signed a decree giving the military control over security in the province of Concepcion, where looters were pillaging supermarkets, gas stations, pharmacies and banks.
The president, who leaves office on March 11, also said the country would accept some of the offers of aid that have poured in from around the world.
She said the country needs field hospitals and temporary bridges, water purification plants and damage assessment experts — as well as rescuers to help relieve workers who have been laboring frantically since the magnitude-8.8 quake struck before dawn Saturday.
Although houses, bridges and highways in Santiago were damaged, a few flights managed to land at the airport and subway service resumed.
More chaotic was the region to the south, where the shaking was the strongest and where the quake generated waves that lashed coastal settlements, leaving behind sticks, scraps of metal and masonry houses ripped in two.
In the village of Lloca, a beachside carnival was caught in the tsunami. A carousel was twisted on its side and a ferris wheel rose above the muddy wreckage.
In Concepcion, the largest city in the disaster zone, a new, 15-story apartment building toppled onto its side. Many of those who lived on the side that wound up facing the sky could clamber out; those on the other were trapped. An estimated 60 people remained trapped in the 70-unit apartment building.
Police officer Jorge Guerra took names of the missing from a stream of tearful relatives and friends. He urged them to be optimistic because about two dozen people had been rescued.
“There are people alive. There are several people who are going to be rescued,” he said — though the next people pulled from the wreckage were dead.
Rescuers worked carefully for fear of aftershocks. Ninety jolts of magnitude 5 or greater shuddered across the region in the first 24 hours after the quake, including one nearly as large as the earthquake that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12.
Firefighters in Concepcion were about to lower a rescuer deep into the rubble when the scent of tear gas fired at looters across the street forced them to interrupt their efforts.
“It’s sad, but because of the situation you have to confront the robberies and at the same time continue the search,” Guerra said.
The sound of chain saws, power drills and sledgehammers breaking through concrete competed with the whoosh of a water cannon fired at looters and the shouts of crowds that found new ways into a four-story supermarket each time police retreated.
One woman ran off with a shopping cart piled high with slabs of unwrapped meat and cheese. A shirtless man carried a mattress on his head. Some of the looters pitched rocks at police armored vehicles.
Across the Bio Bio River in the city of San Pedro, looters cleared out a shopping mall. A video store was set ablaze, two automatic teller machines were broken open, a bank was robbed and a supermarket emptied, its floor littered with mashed plums, scattered dog food and smashed liquor bottles.
“It was a mob. They looted everything,” said police Sgt. Rene Gutierrez, 46, who had his men guarding the now-empty mall. “Now we’re only here to protect the building — what’s left of the building.”
He said police had been slow to reach the looted mall because one bridge over the river was collapsed and the other so damaged they had to move cautiously.
Ingenious looters even used long tubes of bamboo and plastic to siphon gasoline from underground tanks at a closed gasoline station. Others rummaged through the station’s restaurant.
Thieves attacked a flour mill in Concepcion — some toting away bags on their shoulders, others using bicycles or cars. One man packed a school bus with sacks of flour.
Many defended the scavenging — of food if not television sets — as a necessity because officials had not brought food or water. Even Concepcion’s mayor, Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, complained that no food aid was reaching the city. She said the federal government should send troops to help halt the looting.