- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2007

PISCO, Peru (AP) Rescuers combed rubble for survivors after a powerful earthquake devastated cities and sent a church’s soaring ceiling tumbling down on hundreds of worshippers in southern Peru, and at least five aftershocks struck early today.

Officials said the death toll across the region hit by Wednesday’s magnitude-8 temblor topped 500.

In the gritty port city of Pisco, searchers at San Clemente church pulled at least 60 bodies out of the ruins and lined them up on the plaza. Doctors struggled to help more than 1,500 injured, including hundreds who waited on cots in the open air, fearing more aftershocks would send buildings crashing down.

Peru’s fire department said the death toll from the magnitude-8 quake that devastated the southern coast had risen to 510, and rescuers were still digging through ruins of collapsed adobe homes in cities and hamlets.

Destruction from Wednesday’s quake was centered in Peru’s southern desert, near the oasis city of Ica and nearby Pisco, about 125 miles southeast of the capital of Lima.

Hundreds had gathered in the pews of the San Clemente church on Wednesday the day Roman Catholics celebrate the Virgin Mary’s rise into heaven for a special Mass marking one month since the death of a Pisco man.

With minutes left in the Mass, the church’s ceiling began to break apart. The shaking lasted for an agonizing two minutes, burying 200 people, according to the town’s mayor. On Thursday, only two stone columns and the church’s dome rose from a giant pile of stone, bricks, wood and dust.

Rescuers laid out the dust-covered dead beneath bloodstained sheets in the city’s plaza. Civil defense workers then arrived and zipped them into body bags. But relatives searching desperately for the missing unzipped the bags, sobbing each time they recognized a familiar face.

Few in the traumatized crowds would talk with journalists. One man shouted at the bodies of his wife and two small daughters as they were pulled from the rubble: “Why did you go? Why?”

Pisco Mayor Juan Mendoza told Lima radio station CPN, sobbing: “The dead are scattered by the dozens on the streets. We don’t have lights, water, communications. Most houses have fallen. Churches, stores, hotels everything is destroyed.”

As dusk fell, Health Minister Carlos Vallejos said finding survivors seemed increasingly unlikely.

“We keep losing hope of finding someone alive after 24 hours have passed” since the quake struck, Vallejos told The Associated Press outside of the church.

Felipe Gutierrez, 82, sat in his pajamas his only clothing in front of what was his Pisco home. The quake reduced it to rubble and he, his 74-year-old wife, their two children and three grandchildren sat staring at the ruins, a tangle of adobe, straw and all of their belongings.

“Yesterday we slept on a mattress, and now we’ll have to set up a tent, because we have nowhere to live,” he said.

The deputy chief of Peru’s fire department, Roberto Ognio, presented a report late Thursday saying the death toll from the quake had risen to 510. The previous total had been 450 and he did not say where the additional deaths had occurred.

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