CONCEPCION, Chile // Rescuers found signs of life in a toppled building yesterday as the world offered aid to victims of an earthquake that killed more than 700 people. Troops and police cracking down on looters arrested dozens of people for violating a curfew. "We are confronting an emergency without parallel in Chile's history," the president Michelle Bachelet declared on Sunday, a day after the magnitude-8.8 quake, one of the biggest in centuries, which also destroyed or badly damaged 500,000 homes.
Some coastal towns were almost obliterated, first shaken by the quake, then slammed by a tsunami that lifted houses and carried them inland and crushed others into piles of sticks. In the town of Constitucion alone, 350 people were reported to have died and a public gym was turned into a makeshift morgue. "The tsunami destroyed almost everything on the seafront [and] the centre of the town was completely destroyed. This means lots of people still haven't been accounted for," Constitucion's mayor, Hugo Tilleria, told state television.
In Concepcion, the biggest city closest to the epicentre, rescuers heard the knock of trapped victims inside a toppled 70-unit apartment building and began to drill through thick walls to reach them, said the fire department commander Juan Carlos Subercaseux. Only the sound of military helicopters flying overhead broke the silence demanded by rescuers straining to hear signs of life within the building. Firefighters had already pulled 25 survivors from the structure as well as eight people who died.
The mayor, Jacqueline van Rysselberghe, told Radio Cooperativa some food aid was arriving in the city of 200,000 yesterday for distribution to the hungry. Electricity was still out, however, and water was scarce. The Concepcion police chief, Eliecer Soler, said officers arrested 55 people for violating a curfew imposed after looters sacked nearly every market in town. Troops ordered into the city by Mrs Bachelet patrolled to enforce security but a few looters re-emerged to rob a market yesterday.
On Sunday, ingenious looters used long tubes of bamboo and plastic to siphon gasoline from underground tanks at a closed gasoline station. Eduardo Aundez, a Spanish professor, watched with disgust as a soldier patiently waited for looters to rummage through a downtown store, then lobbed two tear gas canisters into the rubble to get them out. "I feel abandoned" by authorities, he said. "We believe the government didn't take the necessary measures in time, and now supplies of food and water are going to be much more complicated."
The UN said yesterday that it would rush aid deliveries to Chile after Mrs Bachelet appealed for international aid. Elisabeth Byrs, a UN humanitarian spokeswoman, said Chile was seeking temporary bridges, field hospitals, satellite phones, electric generators, damage assessment teams, water purification systems, field kitchens and dialysis centres. "We are prepared to provide assistance," Ms Byrs said in Geneva. "It could be quite fast, given that our experts are on standby and were alerted in the region."
The World Health Organisation said it expected the death toll to rise in the coming days as communications improve. For survivors, it said access to health services will be a major challenge and noted that indigenous people living in adobe homes were most at risk from heavily damaged infrastructure. The US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton also offered to provide disaster aid, saying she would bring some communications equipment when she visits Chile today.
Argentina said it was sending six aircraft loaded with a field hospital, 55 doctors and water treatment plants. Mrs Bachelet ordered troops to help deliver food, water and blankets and clear rubble from roads, and she urged power companies to restore service first to hospitals, health clinics and shelters. Mrs Bachelet also ordered authorities to quickly identify the dead and return them to their families to ensure "the dignified burials that they deserve".
The defence minister, Francisco Vidal, acknowledged the navy made a mistake by not immediately activating a tsunami warning after the quake hit before dawn on Saturday. Port captains in several coastal towns did, saving hundreds of lives, Mr Vidal said. Thirty minutes passed between the quake and a wave that inundated coastal towns. Officials said at least eight people died and eight were missing on Robinson Crusoe Island, where the tsunami drove the sea almost 3km into the town of San Juan Bautista.
Efforts to determine the full scope of destruction were undermined by an endless string of terrifying aftershocks that turned more buildings into rubble - and forced thousands to set up tents in parks and grassy highway medians. "If you're inside your house, the furniture moves," said Monica Aviles, pulling a shawl around her shoulders as she sat next to a fire across the street from her apartment building. As if to punctuate her fear, an aftershock set off shuddering and groaning sounds for blocks around. "That's why we're here," she said.
* Associated Press, with additional reporting by Reuters