Death Toll From Ecuador Quake Rises to 350
PORTOVIEJO, Ecuador — The death toll from the earthquake that struckEcuador over the weekend rose to 350 on Monday, as residents continued to dig through rubble and rescue crews from around the world arrived to help with the relief efforts.
The magnitude 7.8 earthquake, the strongest to strike Ecuador in decades, left an area of ruin stretching hundreds of miles through provinces that border the Pacific coast, felling buildings, buckling highways and leaving thousands homeless. More than 2,000 people were injured.
Portoviejo, a city of nearly 300,000, was among the hardest-hit areas, with officials reporting more than 100 deaths and at least 370 buildings destroyed. Survivors described how the earthquake, from one moment to the next, transformed a normal, placid Saturday night.
Manuel Zambrano, 21, said he was at his job in a pharmacy on the ground floor of a three-story building when everything began to shake and the building began to collapse. He and a friend pressed themselves against a pilar for safety as the ceiling and walls tumbled down around them.
In a stroke of good fortune, he said, they found themselves trapped in a pocket within the debris.
“It was dark, there were sirens, shouts, crying — a scene that I could only imagine but never ever saw,” Mr. Zambrano recalled as he stood near a mound of debris that had once been the building. “I thought it was the end but I remembered the 33 trapped miners in the mine in Chile, and thought that if they could survive so many days, I could also do it,”
Two hours after the collapse, they heard knocks on the walls and people shouting.
“A person I now consider my hero was searching for people to help and he found us,” Mr. Zambrano recalled. “He opened a hole and went to find help to get us out.” Mr. Zambrano escaped with only scrapes on his arms, face and legs.
“I am 21 years old, but beginning today I’m counting from 1 because I was reborn,” he said, tears in his eyes. “Believe me: I was reborn.”
Not everyone in the building was so fortunate. Three other occupants died in the collapse, including another pharmacy employee, Vicky Chávez, 31. Her father, Carlos Chávez, and a group of neighbors were still removing the rubble piece by piece on Monday morning to free her body.
President Rafael Correa’s administration reported that rescue crews were flying in from around Latin America and from Europe. Hundreds of foreign aid workers were already in the disaster zone by Monday morning, with the largest contingents so far including 120 from Mexico, 80 from Spain and 49 from Chile, officials said.
The Spanish Red Cross, which is helping its counterpart in Ecuador, estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 people were left homeless by the earthquake and would need temporary shelter, the group said in a statement.
The United Nations refugee agency announced Monday that it was preparing an airlift to help those displaced by the earthquake. The first supply plane was being loaded in Copenhagen, the agency’s global logistics hub, with 900 tents, 15,000 sleeping mats, kitchen sets and, mindful of theZika virus threat, 18,000 repellent-soaked mosquito nets.
“The aim is to rapidly provide essential shelter and other aid material over the next days for some 40,000 people — refugees, asylum seekers and locals alike — in earthquake-affected communities,” the agency said in a statement, adding that it had already sent emergency supplies from its Ecuadorean warehouses by truck to the worst-affected areas.
Ecuador has the largest refugee population of any country in Latin America, the agency said, having welcomed over 200,000 Colombian refugees and others. Many live where the earthquake hit hardest.
Fausto Ortega, 58, rode around Portoviejo and into its suburbs on his bicycle for more than an hour to find some bread for his family’s breakfast on Monday.
“The situation is very anxiety-inducing because we have to look for ways to survive during these next few days,” he said Monday. “My wife is scared to enter the house and prefers to sleep in the street because the house can fall. We are poor and need help, but nobody has come to bring us even a glass of water or a grain of rice. We’ve been told to go to the shelter, but we’re not going to leave the little that we have unguarded.”
Viviana Baquezea, 34, a florist, said she was driving back to her home in Portoviejo, accompanied by her parents and an employee, when the earthquake struck on Saturday. They were met by a scene of destruction.
“It looks like a war zone,” Ms. Baquezea said. “It’s incredible what has happened to us — that our city is destroyed and we’re experiencing such anguish and pain.”
“We don’t have food or water, there are no supermarkets, and we’re surviving with what we had in our homes,” she added.
Ecuador has a history of destructive earthquakes, but the one on Saturday, which by some accounts lasted more than a minute, is believed to have been one of the most powerful since the 1970s. Some geologists said its force was 20 times greater than the deadly earthquake that struck southern Japan early Saturday.
President Correa, who cut short a trip to the Vatican and flew to the disaster zone to oversee relief efforts, said the earthquake was the worst natural disaster to hit Ecuador since 1949, when an earthquake struck the city of Ambato and killed more than 5,000 people, according to The Associated Press.
Saturday’s quake had a depth of nearly 12 miles. Several aftershocks, some as strong as magnitude 5.6, followed. The earthquake’s center was 16 miles southeast of Muisne, Ecuador, the United States Geological Survey said.
About 4,600 members of the National Police and 10,400 members of the armed forces were mobilized as part of the emergency response. Hundreds of doctors, health professionals and rescue workers were heading toward the devastated areas.
The president’s emergency decree gives the government expanded authority in six of the country’s 24 provinces. Deaths were reported in the northern provinces of Esmeraldas, Manabí and Guayas.