Peru earthquake survivors loot, fight for food

Updated: 2007-08-18 09:27

PISCO, Peru -- Earthquake survivors desperate for food and water ransacked a market and blocked aid trucks on the Pan-American highway Friday, prompting Peru's president to appeal for calm.

Aid finally arrived at the disaster zone after about 36 hours without much help. But hopes of finding more survivors diminished.

At least 510 people were killed in the quake and 1,500 were injured, overwhelming the few hospitals in Peru's southern desert region, and severe damage to the only highway slowed trucks from Lima.

But food, water, tents and blankets were finally arriving, and with Peruvian soldiers distributing aluminum caskets, the first mass funerals were being held.

"Nobody is going to die of hunger or thirst," President Alan Garcia said following complaints that aid was not arriving fast enough for some 80,000 people who lost loved ones, homes and belongings in Wednesday's magnitude-8 temblor and the many aftershocks that have followed. "There is no reason to fall into exaggerated desperation."

But many complained of looting and price-gouging.

"Why do we abuse one another so much? That's what hurts," said Manrique Monsalve, whose niece Marcia died when the bank's wall tumbled onto her in Pisco's central plaza.

The scope of the damage became more clear two days after magnitude-8 quake violently shook Peru's desert southern coast.

The death count stood at 510, according to Peru's fire department, and hopes of finding more survivors were diminishing. At least 1,500 people were injured and Garcia said 80,000 had lost loved ones, homes or both. Brig. Maj. Jorge Vera, chief of the rescue operation, said 85 percent of Pisco's downtown was reduced to rubble.

About 15 guests and workers couldn't get out as Pisco's five-story Embassy Hotel accordioned onto its ground floor. As many as 20 people were trapped in a billiard hall. Manuel Medina said he dug his nephew, Miguel Blondet Soto, and a dozen other children from their English classroom at the San Tomas school.

"Those who were in front managed to get out," he said. "But those in back died."

Soaring church ceilings tumbled onto the faithful in towns all around this gritty port city, covering pews in tons of stone, timbers and dust.

"People were running out the front door screaming," said Renzo Hernandez, who watched Pisco's San Clemente church disintegrate from across the town's plaza. The survivors, bloodied and covered in dust, hugged one another in terror and relief, he said. "It felt like the end of the world."

Garcia predicted "a situation approaching normality" in 10 days, but acknowledged that reconstruction would take far longer.

Food, water, tents and blankets were finally arriving Friday. Workers continued to pull bodies from collapsed buildings, but the region remained without water, power and phones, and rescue officials were beginning to worry about the outbreak of disease.

At least 542 prisoners remained on the run after escaping from a prison in the nearby town of Chincha when a wall fell down in the quake. Only 29 had been recaptured, officials said.

Fishing boats sat on streets in nearby San Andres and some oceanside neighborhoods of Pisco looked like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, with piles of rubble under standing water pushed up by quake-generated tidal waves.

With Peruvian soldiers distributing aluminum caskets, the first mass funerals were being held. In Pisco's cemetery, lined with collapsed tombs and tumbled crosses, a man painted the names of the dead onto headstones - some 200 were lined up. Grieving relatives lowered a stream of coffins into shallow graves.

"My dear child. Gloria!" wailed Julia Siguis, her hands spread over two small coffins holding her cousin and niece. "Who am I going to call now? Who am I going to call?"

All day Friday, people with no way to refrigerate corpses rushed coffins through the cemetery gate, which leaned dangerously until a bulldozer came to knock it down.

Doctors treated 169 people at Pisco's hospital but failed to save 30 others. The hospital itself was transplanted to a basketball court and the damaged hospital building became a morgue, said Dr. Jose Renteros, the physician in charge. Many of the injured were airlifted to Lima.

More aftershocks jolted the region Friday, frightening survivors but doing little damage. At least 18 of magnitude-5 or greater have struck since the first quake, which pumped the earth in violent jabs like the pistons of a car engine, according to Medina.

He was working at a Pisco ice cream factory when the big one hit.

"It was all I could do to keep my balance," he said, throwing his arms up and down to imitate the movement.

Searchers still sought bodies and survivors Friday at San Clemente church, where hundreds had gathered on the day Roman Catholics celebrate the Virgin Mary's rise into heaven for a memorial Mass for a man who died a month earlier.

About 50 bodies had been removed by dawn, said Jorge Molina, the search and rescue team leader.

"We've heard sounds. There are two places where we're hearing taps, very faint taps," he said.

He held out hope for finding more people alive - a man was pulled from the church rubble Thursday. But rescue workers we having little luck as they went block-to-block, shouting into piles of brick and mortar: "We're firefighters! If you can hear us, shout or strike something!"

The U.S. government released US$150,000 in emergency funds for emergency supplies and was sending in medical teams - one of which is already on the ground. It also sent two mobile clinics and loaned two helicopters to Peruvian authorities.

But the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort, now docked in Ecuador, won't make the three-day trip to Pisco because both governments decided it wasn't needed. The Comfort carries 800 medical personnel, but Peru needs supplies more than doctors, U.S. Embassy spokesman Dan Martinez said.

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