Hundreds Still Missing After Salvadoran Quake
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
SANTA TECLA, El Salvador, Jan. 14 -- Hundreds of neighbors and rescue
workers dug with crowbars, backhoes and even bare hands through a mountain
today in a desperate search for survivors of an earthquake that killed at least 400 people and left more than 1,000 missing.
In this pleasant middle-class suburb of the capital tucked hard by the
foot of a steep range of hills, an entire section of hillside collapsed
7.6-magnitude earthquake, entombing hundreds of houses in a swath of destruction 100 yards wide and 500 yards long. President Francisco Flores said he had
asked Colombia for 3,000 coffins, as officials acknowledged that the death toll was still far from certain.
In the Las Colinas neighborhood, the area hardest hit by the quake --
which damaged homes across El Salvador and rattled much of Central America
destruction was nearly total. More than 36 hours after the quake, only a handful of survivors had been found, including one critically injured man who had been
trapped for 30 hours until late this evening under a home he had moved into only two days previously.
The man, 22-year-old musician Sergio Armando Moreno, was playing his
electronic keyboard when the earth began to shake and the hillside looming
over his small
house exploded into an avalanche. He ran to the patio and fell to his knees as the landslide smashed and splintered everything around him and pinned him in a tiny
dark space beneath a concrete slab.
Through a long Saturday night, he described what had happened and talked
quietly with his uncle, his best friend and three paramedics from Guatemala
crawled into the hole and refused to leave his side, giving him blood transfusions, oxygen, water and rice.
"He told me, 'Somebody in heaven wants me,' but I told him he has to
be strong for his little girl; he has to live for his family," said Napoleon
Garcia, the uncle who
found Moreno alive after digging for more than hour with his bare hands.
Late this evening, as his parents, uncle and other family members embraced,
crying and praying out loud, Moreno was finally lifted out of his concrete
Exhausted firefighters, construction workers, girl scouts, nurses, doctors and paramedics cheered loudly.
The long battle to free Moreno, a keyboardist in a band called Groupo
Algodon, which has played many times for the Salvadoran community in Washington,
one of few hopeful moments here today. Local officials using helicopters to assess the damage estimated that 20,000 homes and businesses had been damaged or
destroyed across the country. Numerous strong aftershocks today triggered more landslides that could be identified from afar by billows of reddish orange dust rising
from the craggy hills all around the city.
Much of San Salvador, the capital, was without water after a main water line ruptured, leading to worries that health problems could arise in coming days.
Henry Weiss, an American engineer who works in El Salvador, was standing
on the second floor of a concrete building when the quake hit. "I thought
the world had
come to an end," he said. "The building moved up and down, and the 10-story building in front of me was swaying back and forth. You have never felt anything like
Many American aid groups, including the Red Cross, and others from as
far away as Taiwan moved quickly to transport relief workers and supplies
to El Salvador.
That effort was delayed because the airport in San Salvador was closed until this afternoon and several key roads are impassable.
Following Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which left 3 million people in Central
America homeless, the Red Cross stored blankets, plastic sheeting for temporary
and other disaster supplies in El Salvador and Guatemala. Workers today -- some wearing Hurricane Mitch T-shirts -- pulled out those supplies for the latest natural
disaster to hit a nation that has suffered earthquakes, hurricanes and war in recent decades.
An earthquake that struck El Salvador in 1986 killed more than 1,500
people. Saturday's quake was centered in the Pacific Ocean just off the
and was felt in Guatemala, where at least two people died.
Still, there was almost no obvious sign of damage in much of the capital,
or the countryside. On a five-hour drive this morning from Guatemala City
to San Salvador,
only a few small scattered landslides and a handful of collapsed houses could be seen. In San Salvador, a city of 500,000 people, most went about their Sunday
business, strolling through parks in fresh church clothes.
Business was brisk at the Burger King, Wendy's, McDonald's and other
fast-food places downtown, and the only sign of anything out of the ordinary
thumping of helicopters overhead.
It was a different story in Santa Tecla and other towns and villages
across the country. According to radio reports, most homes in Comasagua,
17 miles west of the
capital, were flattened. The number of dead there was not known. Wire reports also said that rescuers were trying to reach dozens of foreign tourists trapped on a
volcano on the outskirts of San Salvador. In Santa Ana, near the Guatemalan border, a century-old church collapsed, killing at least one person who was worshiping
In Santa Tecla, hundreds of houses were swallowed up by the massive
landslide. Next to the house under which Moreno lay trapped for so long,
a child's purple
bicycle sat on a balcony next to a gaily painted blue door just beyond where the landslide stopped. A few feet away, rescue workers in surgical masks placed
unearthed body parts in plastic bags.
Hundreds of workers spread out across the neighborhood, now buried by
20 to 25 feet of hard-packed dirt. People hacked away with picks and shovels,
and motorized equipment. Bucket brigades were set up to remove debris. Workers concentrated on spots where they believed individual houses were interred. In
many cases, they knew how many people they were looking for in a specific house and what their names were. Tonight, under the glare of portable lights, pickup
trucks with coffins waited nearby, as did stunned relatives staring at the scene.
"We have no hope of finding anyone, only bodies," said Susana Figueroa, a local physician assisting in the effort.
Yellow police tape marked the spot where Moreno had been trapped, wedged on his side with what doctors said may be a broken leg and a broken back.
Mynor A. Rodas, 22, a volunteer firefighter from Guatemala who drove
here to help, arrived about midnight Saturday and by late this afternoon
had not left
Moreno's side for more than a few minutes. "He is very scared; he says he cannot hang on," Rodas said before the rescue. "His eyes are red and tired; he hasn't been
able to sleep at all."
Rodas said Moreno told him during the night that he didn't want to die and leave his 5-year-old daughter, who was safely at her mother's house when the quake hit.
His uncle, Garcia, a Roman Catholic priest, was the first to reach Moreno's
house. "When I heard the news, I came looking for the house. I found it,
and I yelled
'Sergio! Sergio!' And I started hitting the walls with my hand. Then with the help of another man, we broke down a wall and just started digging with our hands. It
took an hour, and when we finally reached him he said, 'I'm going to die.' And I said, 'No, you aren't, I won't let you.' "
© 2001 The Washington Post