Heroism and banditry mingled on Chile’s shattered streets Sunday as rescuers braved aftershocks digging for survivors and the government sent soldiers and ordered a nighttime curfew to quell looting. The death toll climbed to 708 in one of the biggest earthquakes in centuries.
In the hard-hit city of Concepción firefighters pulling survivors from a toppled apartment block were forced to pause because of tear gas fired to stop looters, who were taking 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 Michelle 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 officials.
She signed a decree giving the military control over security in Concepción, where looters pillaged supermarkets, gas stations, pharmacies and banks.
Virtually every supermarket had been looted — and no food or drinking water could be found. Many people in Concepción expressed anger at the authorities for not stopping the looting or bringing in supplies. Electricity and water services were out of service.
“We are overwhelmed,” a police officer said.
Bachelet said a curfew was being imposed from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. and only security forces and other emergency personnel would be allowed on the streets. Police vehicles drove around announcing the curfew over loudspeakers.
As nightfall neared, hundreds of people put up tents and huddled around wood fires in parks and grassy medians, too fearful to return to their homes amid continuing strong aftershocks.
Bachelet, who leaves office March 11, said the country would accept some of the offers of foreign aid.
To remove any need for looting, Bachelet announced that essentials on the shelves of major supermarkets would be given away for free, under the supervision of authorities. Soldiers and police will also distribute food and water, she said.
Although houses, bridges and highways were damaged in Santiago, the national capital, a few flights managed to land at the airport and subway service resumed.
More chaotic was the south, where the shaking was strongest and the quake generated waves that lashed coastal settlements, leaving behind scraps of metal and masonry houses ripped in two.
In Concepción, the largest city in the disaster zone, a new, 15-story apartment building toppled. Many of those who lived on the upward-facing side could climb 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.
Rescuers worked carefully, fearing aftershocks. Ninety jolts of magnitude 5 or greater shuddered across the region in the first 24 hours after the quake.
The sound of rescuers’ 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.
Across the Bio Bio River in 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.
“It was a mob. They looted everything,” said police Sgt. Rene Gutierrez, whose men guarded the now-empty mall. “Now we’re only here to protect the building — what’s left of the building.”
Ingenious looters even used long tubes of bamboo and plastic to siphon gasoline from underground tanks at a gas station.
Many defended the scavenging — of food if not television sets — as a necessity because officials had not brought food or water. Even Concepción’s mayor complained that no food aid was reaching the city. She said the federal government should send troops to help halt the looting.
State television showed scenes of devastation in coastal towns and more still on Robinson Crusoe Island, where it said the tsunami drove almost 2 miles into San Juan Bautista.