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Chileans tell of terror as quake struck

Residents sit by a fire in Valparaiso  27.01.10
Many sit around fires outside, afraid aftershocks will destroy their homes

By Rodrigo Bustamante
BBC News, Santiago

Chileans are used to earthquakes, and it is not unusual to be woken by tremors and to wait for them to finish without major consequences.

But Saturday morning's quake was different.

Those who expected it to pass quickly were wrong, and had to admit that this time it was "a big one".

Intense movements took seconds but seemed to go on forever. Then came the sounds of shattering glass - plates and other objects breaking against the floor, and finally the power outage that left most of the country trembling in the dark.

I never faced something as terrible as this - when the earth shook and our house moved back and forth, my wife and I thought it was time to say goodbye
Carlos Escobar

First there was shouting, then people searched for a place to wait for the dreaded aftershocks.

"I was with a group of friends in the 15th floor of a building, when the floor started to shake, some DVDs fell from cupboards, and cracks started to appear in the ceilings and stairways," writer and journalist Cristian Farfan told the BBC.

"My girlfriend thought we were going to be crushed to death and she could not bear the thought of such a horrible death."

'Apocalypse'

He compared it to the quake of 1985 which left more than 170 people dead and left a million people homeless.

"I had vague memories of 1985, but this felt like the Apocalypse," he said.

"It was a terrible sensation, I was left in shock, I could not imagine an earthquake was like this. You remember all of your relatives, your friends."

Collapsed road near Santiago
Evidence of the earthquake is everywhere

Carlos Escobar also called this the strongest earthquake he had felt in his 65 years.

"I never faced something as terrible as this. When the earth shaked and our house moved back and forth, my wife and I thought it was time to say goodbye. That was our feeling," he told the BBC.

As a member of a neighbourhood watch group in Santiago, he went on a walk in nearby streets after the earthquake.

"We found a car almost crushed by a wall. And the most terrible thing we saw was a three-storey apartment block, still standing but totally destroyed, with people getting their things out and running away," he said.

'We are safe'

Buildings in Carlos Valdovinos street, in Santiago's San Joaquin district, suffered badly in 1985 and many people said they would not resist another major quake.

However, this time the destruction was smaller.

Walking through the district, the walls of the old buildings are badly cracked and their occupants do not know if they should stay or seek refuge elsewhere.

"The building has cracks and will not withstand an aftershock, it will collapse with a grade-two earthquake," says Macarena, who was woken with her two small daughters in her fourth-storey flat.

"The important thing is that we are safe", she says.

Bonfires were lit for people to spend the night outside damaged houses, and in the morning the remnants of the fires are everywhere.

All people talk about is the quake.

The faithful cry over damage to well-known churches such as the Divina Providencia.

Football fans lament the suspension of games and music lovers have missed the closing night of the famous Vina del Mar festival.

Everyone has something to say about Chile's night of terror, and many still fear the constant threat of aftershocks.


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