Los Angeles Times
January 15, 2001

Salvador Leader Calls for 3,000 Coffins in Quake

              By JUANITA DARLING, Times Staff Writer

                   COMASAGUA, El Salvador--Rescue workers on Sunday dug through landslides to reach
              remote mountain towns like this one and bulldozed through the avalanche of dirt that buried a
              suburban neighborhood, finding few survivors and more bodies that brought the confirmed death
              toll from an offshore earthquake Saturday to at least 400.
                   Giving the most drastic official estimate yet of the dimensions of the disaster, President
              Francisco Flores announced that he had asked Colombia to donate 3,000 coffins.
                   In neighboring Guatemala, officials said four bodies were discovered, bringing the death toll
              there to six from a quake that was also felt in Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico.
                   Aid for El Salvador--last devastated in 1986 by a quake of comparable magnitude, which
              killed at least 1,400 people--was promised by, among others, the United States, Mexico, Spain,
              France and Taiwan.
                   On both the suburban and rural, coffee-growing sides of this country's Balsamo mountain
              range, families were camped in streets and parks with the few possessions they could rescue.
              More than 600 aftershocks continued to terrorize a population still trembling from the quake,
              which had a preliminary magnitude of 7.6.
                   Dozens of survivors waiting to claim the bodies of relatives outside a makeshift morgue a few blocks from where a deforested
              cliff fell on the Las Colinas neighborhood in Nueva San Salvador, a suburb of the capital, San Salvador, embraced one another and
              cried during an especially strong tremor Sunday morning.
                   "Let's get out of here!" one woman cried, looking apprehensively at a city-block-wide gash that led from the peak above them to
              a mile-square mud flat that a day before had been a dozen blocks of townhouses.
                   Later, during an afternoon tremor, loose tiles and bricks fell from the shells of the buildings that had been Comasagua. Streets
              were littered with debris, and masonry dripped from tottering walls like wax from a melting candle.
                   Among the survivors pulled from the wreckage Sunday in Las Colinas was a critically injured man who had been pinned for 30
              hours in a tiny space beneath a concrete slab. Sergio Armando Moreno, 22, received intravenous fluids, oxygen and water until he
              could be extricated.
                   Officials warned that they expected to find hundreds more corpses beneath the new dunes of soil in Las Colinas and in hamlets
              still isolated along impassable roads. As of late Sunday, 158 bodies had been recovered in La Libertad province, where Comasagua
              and Las Colinas are located.
                   Soldiers were clearing landslides covering the road that normally connects this town to Nueva San Salvador, said Maj. Salvador
              Benavides. One mile-long stretch of the highway fell into a gorge, he said.
                   So far, army helicopters had recovered 21 survivors and nine bodies from the area, Benavides said late Sunday afternoon.
              Rescue efforts were slowed because Comasagua can be reached by land only after a bone-rattling, two-hour drive over a dirt road.
                   Mauricio Hernandez, 28, the Red Cross official in charge of rescue operations in Comasagua, said he had lost track of the
              number of bodies that had been found in the ruins of the town.
                   "It's just terrible," he said.
                   Maria Isabel Blanco, a 59-year-old grandmother, shared a sofa with her sister on the sidewalk outside the ruins of the Good
              Shepherd drugstore, which she owned.
                   "The earthquake knocked me over," she said, her sense of humor winning out over her sense of loss. "I spent the quake lying in
              the street."
                   Saturday night, she had organized dusk vespers "to ask for God's mercy on us," she said.
                   Parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church near Las Colinas also turned to religion for solace. About 100 faithful attended a
              Sunday morning Mass on the street outside their church, whose roof had collapsed.
                   "What has happened to us is nothing," Father Peter Danaher of New York, who has been the parish priest for eight months, told
              them as rescue helicopters buzzed overhead. "We will repair the roof next week or next year or in five years."
                   Danaher had spent Saturday night walking the muddy hills that covered Las Colinas, offering comfort to families and
              encouragement to rescue workers who labored for hours with picks and shovels before any heavy equipment arrived to help.
                   "When something like this happens, you feel you have to do something," he said.
                   Other Salvadorans took comfort in helping with the rescue work. Solderer Jose Luis Guerrera, 45, had been shoveling for 10
              hours by midday Sunday, trying to uncover the home of the brother of a fellow worker whose last name he did not know.
                   "He asked me to help, so I came," he explained.
                   But many residents of Nueva San Salvador found no comfort for deaths they considered unnecessary. The municipal government
              tried to prevent construction company Posada Magana from building mansions on the hilltops above Las Colinas, which means "the
              foothills," said city comptroller Jose Noe Torres.
                   "They took us to court, sued us for $4.5 million and won," he said angrily. "This is the result."
                   Residents booed President Flores when he visited the site of the disaster late Saturday.
                   "The earthquake was the work of God," said Jose Luis Rodriguez, whose mother-in-law was trapped in the landslide and
              presumed dead. "But this," he said, gesturing toward the mud that stretched for blocks, "this is the work of man."
                   The construction company could not be reached for comment.
                   "There is a reason that San Salvador is called the Valley of the Hammocks," Interior Minister Mario Acosta Oertel said at a news
              conference. "There is no place in the metropolitan area that is safe from earthquakes."
                   Times wire services contributed to this report.

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