- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2001

SAN SALVADOR With a mountain of dirt shuddering from aftershocks under their feet, rescuers yesterday dug with shovels and bare hands or led sniffer dogs to find survivors of an earthquake that killed more than 250 persons and left hundreds missing nationwide.

As the death toll rose, President Francisco Flores said he had asked Colombia for 3,000 coffins and overwhelmed officials began to bury some victims in common graves.

Terrifying aftershocks forced rescuers to scale back digging in the Las Colinas neighborhood buried by dirt that came crashing down from a mountainside on Saturday morning in the magnitude-7.6 quake.

"We still don't know anything," said Gladis de Carman, searching for her missing daughter and crying as she spoke on a cell phone to her mother. "And now the ground is shaking again under us."

Body-hunting dogs, sent in from the United States and Mexico, sniffed for the living and the dead under the blinding sun at Las Colinas before the new quakes caused bulldozers to retreat.

Mexico was first to send substantial help, with three planeloads of supplies. The United States was quick behind, with rescue crews and supplies. Offers of assistance came from Spain, Taiwan, Panama, even Guatemala, which itself suffered damage and two deaths in the quake.

[The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said the United States would send helicopters to help assess the damage and target relief while Spain was preparing to send a team of 75 firefighters and 24 dogs to search for survivors, the Reuters news agency reported.]

"We're looking for our friends here. This can't wait," said a frustrated Juan Jose Lopez, who had come with six friends to try to dig out an elderly couple. He had barely located the house and started to dig before he was ordered to leave.

Saturday's quake off of El Salvador's coast was felt from northern Panama to central Mexico a distance of more than 1,100 miles. A magnitude-4.3 earthquake also shook a wide area of Los Angeles Saturday, with a 4.1-magnitude aftershock 24 minutes later. There were no reports of injury or serious damage.

Yesterday's midday aftershocks in El Salvador were below magnitude 4 but centered within a few miles of the capital, according to local seismologists.

At least 158 bodies had been pulled from Las Colinas by yesterday afternoon, said Dr. Mario Afredo Hernandez of the coroner's office, the Institute of Legal Medicine.

He said about half had not yet been identified, and those were being buried in common graves because there was no place to keep them.

Mr. Flores told reporters at a news conference he had asked Colombia for 3,000 coffins, but said it was "premature" to evaluate the damage. In the post-quake chaos, rescuing took precedence over accurate counting.

The National Emergency Committee reported 193 dead, 350 injured and 1,000 missing nationwide. But the coroner's count of the dead from Las Colinas alone would increase the committee's number by about 90.

National Police counted 234 dead nationally, 2,000 injured, 4,692 houses destroyed and 16,148 damaged. Eighty-seven churches were damaged as well including the ruined Our Lady of Guadalupe Church overlooking Las Colinas.

"We will need to do some crying today, and there will be time for that. But we all need to understand how lucky we have been," the Rev. Peter Danaher of Lindenhurt, N.Y., told somber, red-eyed parishioners worshipping before the rubble of brick and stone that had been their church.

The only surviving wall behind Father Danaher displayed a cross in a stained-glass window and an icon of the Virgin. The sound of hymns drifted a few hundred yards down the ravine to rescuers digging in Las Colinas.

"I am not worried about rebuilding the church. That can be done in five months or five years, it doesn't matter," Father Danaher said. "That is a question of brick and concrete. Ours is a question of lives and human spirit."

Only three survivors had been recovered from Las Colinas, but hundreds of people worked without sleep to hunt for more, many using only shovels, even bare hands.

"It is very dangerous here, but we are going to keep hunting. We are going to take them out alive or dead," said Juan Sanchez, a Muslim Green Cross rescue worker.

Fearful of the aftershocks that reached magnitude 4.6, many residents of San Salvador slept in the streets or cars overnight, tablecloths or curtains covering windows for privacy.

The nation's main airport reopened yesterday afternoon after being closed for more than a day. That eased the way for more relief.

Pope John Paul II urged international assistance for the nation of 6 million.

Guatemala was supplying 40 percent of the electricity used by El Salvador's quake-crippled power grid, up from less than 10 percent.

Police said seven persons died in San Miguel, 70 miles southeast of the capital, five of them when a hillside collapsed on coffee pickers. A prematurely born infant died when the loss of power cut hospital respirators.

Yesterday, scores of patients dozed on gurneys and mattresses beneath tarps and palm trees before the quake-damaged hospital.

Mayor Jose Perez said 95 percent of the houses were badly damaged in Comasagua, 17 miles west of the capital, and he said four persons died.

The Red Cross said 13 persons died in Sosonati west of the capital and 10 were killed when a landslide buried a bus on a highway east of San Salvador.

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