Archive for Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Hope for survivors runs out

El Salvador quake toll tops 600

January 17, 2001

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— Bulldozers plowed through the wreckage of an earthquake-driven landslide Tuesday after sniffer dogs and heartbeat detectors failed in a final, desperate attempt to locate any more survivors in this Salvadoran town.

The only one pulled alive from the rubble was a German shepherd mix named Bobby. His owner, who lost his mother and brother in the quake, led the dog away with what few belongings he could salvage before the earth movers trundled in.

A resident of Los Amates, El Salvador, looks over the earthquake
destruction in his neighborhood. Saturday's earthquake killed more
than 600 people and left thousands homeless.

A resident of Los Amates, El Salvador, looks over the earthquake destruction in his neighborhood. Saturday's earthquake killed more than 600 people and left thousands homeless.

The death toll rose to 682 and was expected to rise as authorities reach communities isolated by landslides. Officials said more than 2,500 people were injured by Saturday's quake, and nearly 45,000 had to be evacuated.

On Tuesday, President Francisco Flores called on the more than 1 million Salvadorans living in the United States to help raise money for reconstruction.

Comasagua, a city 17 miles west of the capital that was rendered inaccessible by landslides, had been reduced to a jumble of mangled houses, although only six people were reported dead there. Hungry residents swarmed around U.S. Army helicopters bringing food, water and medicine. "All we have is God and the helicopter that brings food," said Fidelia Guardao.

The soldiers loaded the food onto trucks, which rumbled into the destroyed downtown where makeshift kitchens awaited the corn, rice and canned fish. "We're doing things to help people out," said Sgt. Bill Cagle of Carson, Calif. "I love this stuff."

There was little hope that anyone would be found alive in the Las Colinas neighborhood just outside the capital, where the magnitude-7.6 quake buried hundreds of houses.

Still, Taiwanese rescuers combed the partially excavated area with equipment designed to detect heartbeats, and Spanish and Mexican volunteers followed dogs sniffing for signs of life buried in the mounds. After a few hours, the search ended unsuccessfully.

Bulldozers and earth movers moved in to tear through the dirt and debris, searching for bodies and filling dump trucks lined up for several blocks. Nearly 350 cadavers have been pulled from the middle-class neighborhood that was buried when a nearby hillside collapsed, and officials were still finding more amid wrecked cars and dirt-packed houses.

Officials had counted 676 bodies in El Salvador and at least six more in Guatemala. Many of the dead were being buried in common graves at the municipal cemetery in this devastated town just outside San Salvador.

A magnitude-5.7 tremor the strongest aftershock since Saturday rocked the capital before dawn Tuesday, panicking residents still sleeping outside and sending others charging into the street. No major damage or injuries were reported.

With more than 46,000 houses damaged or destroyed Saturday, Nicaragua's president visited neighboring El Salvador to appeal for international aid.

"Hopefully the aid will not only come now, but also in the reconstruction phase," he said.

Blocked from entering the Las Colinas neighborhood where her niece's house was buried, Sonia Olivo waited outside barricades Tuesday for word on the excavation's progress. Although her niece was able to run out of the house in time to avoid being buried alive, other relatives weren't as lucky. The two daughters of another niece were found dead Sunday in a nearby house, wrapped in the arms of the woman who cared for them. "We are just waiting to see if there is a possibility of finding anything," she said.

With entire families lost in the landslide, many belongings lay on the muddy expanse, likely to remain unclaimed forever. Next to the remains of one house that had been partially dug out of the mud lay a photo album covered in pink taffeta, lace and dirt.

Photos spilling out showed a smiling teen-age girl standing next to a cake that read: "Happy 15th Birthday Natalia!" Others showed her laughing with icing smeared on her face, and dancing with a man who appeared to be her father.

Tucked in the back were handwritten birthday wishes. "May God bless you and keep you always. Goodbye with lots of love," read one note, dated June 6, 1999. Another read: "May you have a Happy Birthday and many more years to come."

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