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March 2, 2010

"I think my mother is trapped beneath the house"

Those are the words of Marioli Gatica, a Chilean woman who described the 18-foot tsunami waves that obliterated her town of Talcahuano an hour after the 8.8 quake which struck that country on Saturday.
Such horrors abound along the devastated beach communities of Chile's south-central coast, which suffered the double tragedy Saturday of the earthquake and the tsunami it caused. Of the quake's 723 victims, most were in the wine-growing Maule region that includes Talcahuano, now a mud-caked, ravaged town of 180,000 just north of Concepcion.

Close to 80 percent of Talcahuano's residents are homeless, with 10,000 homes uninhabitable and hundreds more destroyed, said Mayor Gaston Saavedra.

"The port is destroyed. The streets, collapsed. City buildings, destroyed," Saavedra said.

In Concepcion, the biggest city near the epicenter, rescuers heard the knocking of victims trapped inside a toppled 70-unit apartment building Monday and were drilling through thick concrete to reach them, said fire Commander Juan Carlos Subercaseux. By late Monday, firefighters had pulled 25 survivors and nine bodies from the structure.

Chile's defense minister has said the navy made a mistake by not immediately activating a tsunami warning. He said port captains who did call warnings in several coastal towns saved hundreds of lives.

The waves came too quickly for a group of 40 retirees vacationing at a seaside campground in the village of Pelluhue. They had piled into a bus that was swept out to sea, along with trucks and houses, when the tsunami surged 200 yards into the summer resort town.

As of Monday, firefighters said, five of the retirees' bodies had been recovered. At least 30 remained missing. . . .
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