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03.03.10

Survivor in Chile: `I saw wave and began to run'

Categories: Testimonios

All tragedies have heroes and this story has two. They are cousins, with similar names; one is alive, the other was swallowed by the sea.

Osvaldo González, 46, was with his family on a small island on the mouth of the Maule River, just off the seaside resort of Constitución. The people of Constitución nicknamed the natural paradise "Cancún.'' The González family -- about 100 of them, what with the cousins, siblings, wives and children -- had been in that paradise since December.

When an 8.8 earthquake shook Chile in the dead of night Saturday morning, Osvaldo didn't know what to expect, but instinct told him it would not be a good idea to remain on the island. He quickly ushered his relatives aboard his boat with an outboard engine, at least as many as the craft could hold, for the ride to Constitución.

He made a second trip, then a third. They were short shuttles, 10 minutes long, but in the darkness of night and on a surging river they seemed interminable.

On the last trip he managed to make, González crossed paths with his cousin Osvaldo Gómez, 37, who had taken another boat to help him with the rescue.

``I never imagined what was about to happen,'' he said, still shaking.

Once on the shore of Constitución, González tried to return to the island but couldn't start the engine. The boat didn't move. Underneath it, he could see mud and stones because the river had suddenly disappeared, as if the sea had sucked it back.

Seconds later, the river returned in the form of a tidal wave more than 30 feet high. The last image González had of his cousin was the sight of Gómez's boat on the crest of that wave, an image that snapped as González ran through the streets of Constitución and up a hill in desperation.

``If I hadn't bogged down in the mud, I would have gone back into the water, like my cousin,'' he said. ``But I saw the wave and began to run.''

Gómez's mother, 65, recalled her last conversation with her son.

``He asked me, `Mom, are there any people left back on the island?' I told him yes, and I headed for the hill. I never again saw my Osvaldo,'' she wailed.

Gómez became one of the estimated 350 people who died in Constitución -- nearly half the country's entire earthquake death toll. That means that in this earthquake, in the towns with the highest number of victims, people were killed not by tumbling buildings, but by water.

Until Sunday, the police estimated that of the 723 who died in Chile's quake, 500 died in the Maule region.

But that number changes constantly. Outside the Constitucíon gym, there is a list with the names of the dead. As the families pick up the bodies, names are erased. As the bodies are identified, names are added.

Besides, a policeman says, ``so far we've only found bodies that were easy to recover.'' That's because the official rescue teams didn't arrive until Monday. The river has not yet been dragged for submerged bodies.

Bill Harbert, a geophysics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said it's common in earthquakes to lose more life to tsunamis, because you can build to protect against seismic shakes but can't do much about columns of water packed with cars and parts of buildings.

``Unless people avoid building in tsunami-prone areas, they are in harm's way,'' Harbert said. ``People are knocked unconscious and swept to sea.''

Chile's Defense Minister acknowledged Sunday that the government failed to issue warnings. In Chile's case, three waves came about a half hour after the 3:34 a.m. quake.

``There's no excuse to die in a tsunami,'' said Tim Dixon, who teachs geophysics at the University of Miami. ``You go inland or to the second floor.''

Many people die, he said, when the water recedes and people rush in to watch.

In Chile, many of the victims died on Orrego Island, celebrating Maule Week, a local festivity.

Mario Leal Quiroz was there with his children, 4 and 9, and Mariela, his wife, who was in her fourth month of pregnancy. After the earthquake, Mario told Mariela, ``Hold on to the children, I'm going to get a boat,'' and plunged into the Maule. Swimming, he crossed to the other side.

The fisherman looked for a boat in desperation while he heard the cries from Orrego Island and saw how the river began to rise. One tidal wave, another one, then a third one, the biggest.

Quiroz raced toward the hills, but could not rescue Mariela or their children.

``I lost my entire family,'' Quiroz said. ``Nobody warned us of anything.''

By Monday morning, only six people had been rescued alive from Orrego Island.

Before the earthquake, Constitución was a tourism jewel in the Maule Region. It had about 50,000 people and an elegant seaside, with houses of traditional architecture. Now everything is on the ground. Walk inland for 10 blocks and all you'll see is collapsed buildings.

The people walking through town are either journalists or policemen, because the residents of Constitución fled to the nearby hills or died.

``I never feared anything. I was a fisherman and was once lost at sea with my brother,'' said Pedro Pinochet, who transports sand for a living. ``But this scared me. It's like being slapped in the face.''

Pinochet lost everything. One of his trucks was lifted by a tidal wave and flung with such force that it was driven into the wall of a house more than threefeet above the ground, like a giant harpoon thrown by the sea.

Like all the other cities destroyed by the quake, Constitución was looted. The stores are empty. The people have come back from the hills tosteal not only food but also whiskey, medicine and television sets.

``What the tidal wave didn't destroy, people destroyed,'' a local policeman said. ``People struck the final blow to this tragedy.''

Miami Herald staff writer Frances Robles contributed to this report from Miami.


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