Page last updated at 04:53 GMT, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Chile quake survivor tells of chaos in Concepcion

A building in Concepcion, Chile destroyed by an earthquake
The 8.8 magnitude earthquake destroyed buildings across the city


Ricardo Leon returns to Concepcion to find not only camaraderie among neighbours, but also criminal elements in their midst. Here is his latest account.

I went to Concepcion today and the city is still in a state of chaos. But it is more secure and protected than ever before thanks to the thousands of soldiers that have being posted to keep the peace in the city.

Looting has being reduced, but there are still some places attacked as soon as the army turns its back.

Neighbours have got together to form groups to patrol each other's houses during the night; some of them carrying guns or using knives or poles as weapons.

Photo: Ricardo Leon
A number of barricades are situated across the city

In every corner there is a barricade and fires are set by the neighbours to warn the thieves not to trespass.

People are tough in the face of danger, but they easily break into tears when asked about the stress that they have being exposed to in the past few days; the constant threats of robbery and witnessing massive looting of supermarkets, just a few blocks from their homes. They are all afraid that they may be the next victims.

It is very sad that all the grief and sorrow caused by the earthquake has being increased by the behaviour of a few thieves.

Crime has increased to the extent that the population are more worried about their safety than the possibility of aftershocks and further damage to their dwellings.

But in general, the behaviour of the people cannot be tainted by a few thieves. Solidarity between neighbours and friends has being remarkable; people took strangers into their homes, found medicine for the sick, helped people get in contact with lost relatives, and other marvellous examples of solidarity.

Some foundations like Un Techo Para Chile have sent their volunteers to the streets to gather supplies, help with the traffic, among other tasks.

During the night the situation becomes more dangerous, despite the curfew imposed by the authorities. Most businesses have being emptied because of looting, but now there are groups burning down shops and supermarkets.

I heard a businessman on local radio say he used a weapon to get rid of looters during the night, although his store was already empty of goods.

Photo: Ricardo Leon
The makeshift signs indicate no entry - the road is closed

Despite the limited amount of fuel available, I was surprised to see a large number of people driving vehicles. A lot of people are trying to get water, food and other supplies, or they are simply leaving the city.

Some drivers had literally their entire belongings inside or on top their cars, maybe fearing looting or maybe because their houses have been destroyed.

Ground zero

In the city centre, most of the media attention was centred on what has been called "ground zero", i.e. the building that fell to the ground. After 48 hours of work, only today firefighters were able to get inside the building - a few dead bodies had been taken out.

On Sunday night, the silence imposed by the curfew helped firefighters to hear sounds possibly coming from survivors inside the building.

The area around the office building that was tilted to one side was closed off, and it was very close to falling during a small aftershock this afternoon.

As we were leaving the city we saw the first trucks approach. To avoid attacks, they were painted white, and they came into the city after the curfew was imposed by the military authorities.

I was able to return to the city with my daughter and I found out that my friend, whose building is 'ground zero', was out of the city at the time of the earthquake, so he is OK.


Ricardo was at his grandmother's house in Concepcion at the time of the earthquake. Concepcion is Chile's second largest city and is in the worst-hit area.

When the earthquake struck I woke up, ran to the door and found my grandmother standing in the hall. We knew what to do: get under a doorframe and wait - but this quake felt like it lasted for hours.

My grandmother's house has two storeys and is about 50 years old, but apart from a cracked wall, it withstood the tremors well.

During the quake the power was cut, so when it was finally over we went out into the dark street, lit only by the full moon.

The phones and the gas supply were also off. The water supply lasted a few hours longer.

People were gathering in the street, tuning into their car radios for local news.

With each aftershock - and there were more than 90 over the next few hours - we felt everything was going to start again.

Hospital shortages

An hour after the quake my sister - who also lives in Concepcion - rang to tell me that she and my other sister were OK.

Later that morning hospital staff asked for water because their supply was cut off. The A and E department was flooded so they were treating emergencies in the car park.

Some debris fell on my baby's crib and broke it in half. Fortunately she was sleeping with her mum

The sound of ambulances, police cars and firemen did not stop all day.

I saw some of the city when I went with my sister's boyfriend to pick up some things from his flat.

Most of the old houses were flattened, more shocking was all the new buildings with cracked walls and tilting floors.

One office building more than 20 storeys high was listing to one side, and another building, less than a year old, was completely flattened.

I learned later that an old classmate of mine lived there, I still don't know what's happened to him.

I managed to speak to the mother of my daughter who lives in Talcahuano, 15 minutes from Concepcion - they were OK.

Some debris fell on my baby's crib and broke it in half. Fortunately she was sleeping with her mum at that moment.

We spent the day trying to get hold of friends and family. We heard that prisoners had escaped from the jail, and started learning of the hundreds of people who had died.

On Sunday morning the looting began and the city became dangerous, so we decided to go to our parents in Los Angeles, a two-hour drive away.

The problem was finding fuel. Petrol stations had no electricity so couldn't pump. Some of them had been attacked by the mob, so the owners refused to use the emergency systems to provide fuel.

Photo: Ricardo Leon
A soldier stands guard at a petrol station
The few petrol stations that were operating were giving priority to emergency vehicles. In a city called Lota - 50 km away from Concepcion - an angry mob had burned down a petrol station when they were denied fuel.

We managed to fill up our tanks because my sister's boyfriend works in the city council.

In the petrol station we heard traumatic stories from policemen who had been in a gun battle the previous night trying to control the mob.

We also spoke to a friend who knows the owner of a construction company. He is in despair over one of his apartment blocks which collapsed. He can't understand what went wrong and feels suicidal about the people who were inside.

As we were leaving the city we saw people queuing for water, supplies and fuel. We also saw people looting stores and supermarkets, walking away with TV sets and refrigerators.

The roads were OK, apart from a few cracks. Now, on Monday, Los Angeles is getting back to normal, but Concepcion is a different story.

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