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Wednesday, 17 January, 2001, 19:39 GMT
Eyewitness: El Salvador's grief
Digging for survivors
The search for survivors is drawing to a close
By Mike Lanchin for BBC News Online

Maria Ortega pleaded with rescue workers not to abandon the search for her sister, presumably buried under layers of thick mud brought down by Saturday's giant earthquake.

"Please dig some more, I am sure she is there, if only you had worked quicker," she sobbed angrily, her desperation growing by the minute. "Why don't you just try?"

The Mexican army officer in charge of the operation, his mouth hidden behind a paper surgical mask to stifle the stench at the disaster site, looked uncomfortable at her insistence.

"We have done our best," he told her, resting a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Only four corpses have been found in the ruins of the house."

Massive graveyard

As the search for survivors from the massive mudslide triggered by the quake, slowly drew to a close on Tuesday, anguished relatives struggled to accept the cruel twist of fate that had turned a lively middle class residential neighbourhood of Las Colinas into a massive graveyard.
man in front of destroyed house
The earthquake turned a middle class neighbourhood into a graveyard

Officials said that more than 400 bodies have been pulled from among the ruins, a desolate scenario of destroyed buildings, and debris strewn with scraps of clothing, personal belongings, kitchen utensils, and even pages of unread newspapers.

It was a scene more reminiscent of a huge aerial bombardment than of a housing estate.

"I have never seen anything like this," said the Mexican general present. "It is impossible to think that there could be survivors here."

Death toll rises

As the death toll rose to over 600, officials estimated that around 1200 people were still missing, many buried under numerous mudslides across the country.

The final fatality count is expected to be much higher.

The Salvadorian Government has ordered 3,000 coffins from Colombia, in anticipation of the rising casualty list.

Authorities said that another 2,000 people were injured in the quake, and another 20,000 survivors left homeless.

"The figures are still very preliminary," President Francisco Flores said on national television on Monday night.

Progress threatened

El Salvador is no stranger to death and destruction. Its recent history has been marked by natural and manmade disasters, from civil war to earthquakes to hurricanes.

But it has been nine years since the historic signing of a peace accord that ended 12 years of brutal civil war, in which more than 80,000 people died.

And important progress made in economic and social aspects could be under threat.

Almost two million Salvadorians have already fled to the United States over the past 20 years in search of jobs.

More than $1.3bn sent down each year by ex-patriots form the foundation of many household budgets.

A disaster of this scale will naturally extenuate that migratory tendency, and more Salvadorians will chance their luck in the perilous journey across the US southern borders.

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See also:

16 Jan 01 | Americas
Tremors hinder quake relief
15 Jan 01 | Americas
International aid for quake victims
14 Jan 01 | World
Deadly history of earthquakes
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