- 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.

The earthquake’s magnitude was raised from 7.9 to 8 on Thursday by the U.S. Geological Survey. Dozens of aftershocks including at least five on Friday caused renewed anxiety, though there were no reports of additional damage or injuries.

President Alan Garcia flew by helicopter to Ica, a city of 120,000 where a quarter of the buildings collapsed, and declared a state of emergency.

Government doctors called off their national strike for higher pay to handle the emergency.

“There has been a good international response even without Peru asking for it, and they’ve been very generous,” Garcia said during a stop in Pisco.

The help includes cash from the United States, United Nations, Red Cross and European Union as well as tents, water, medicine and other supplies. The U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort, equipped with a staff of 800 and 12 operating rooms, is in Ecuador and could quickly sail to Peru if asked, U.S. officials said.

In Washington, President Bush offered condolences and said his administration was studying how best to send help. One American died in the quake, according to the State Department.

Electricity, water and phone service were down in much of southern Peru. The government rushed police, soldiers and doctors to the area, but traffic was paralyzed by giant cracks and fallen power lines on the Panamerican Highway.

In Chincha, a small town near Pisco only 25 miles from the quake’s epicenter, an AP Television News cameraman counted 30 bodies on a hospital patio. The face of one victim was uncovered, her eyes open. The feet of another stuck out from under a blanket.

Hundreds of injured lay side-by-side on cots on walkways and in gardens outside hospital buildings.

“Our services are saturated and half of the hospital has collapsed,” Dr. Huber Malma said as he single-handedly attended to dozens of patients.

In Lima, 95 miles from the epicenter, only one death was recorded. But the furious two minutes of shaking prompted thousands to flee into the streets and sleep in public parks.

Scientists said the quake was a “megathrust” a type of earthquake similar to the catastrophic Indian Ocean temblor in 2004 that generated deadly tsunami waves. “Megathrusts produce the largest earthquakes on the planet,” USGS geophysicist Paul Earle said.

In general, magnitude 8 quakes are capable of causing tremendous damage. Quakes of magnitude 2.5 to 3 are the smallest generally felt, and every increase of one number on the magnitude scale means that the quake’s magnitude is 10 times as great.

The temblor occurred in one of the most seismically active regions in the world at the boundary where the Nazca and South American tectonic plates meet. The plates are moving together at a rate of 3 inches a year, Earle said.

Associated Press writers Monte Hayes, Edison Lopez and Leslie Josephs in Lima, Martin Mejia and Mauricio Munoz in Ica, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Alicia Chang in Los Angeles and Sarah DiLorenzo in New York contributed to this report.

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