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Monday, March 1, 2010


Efforts to determine the scope of destruction from Chile's earthquake were undermined by a string of aftershocks Monday that turned more buildings into rubble.

Rescue workers and police scrambled to dig out survivors and contain looting as the death toll from one of history's most powerful earthquakes mounted to more than 700 people.

Firefighters searched for an estimated 60 people trapped inside a new, 15-story apartment building that toppled onto its side in Concepcion. A rescuer was lowered deep into the rubble when tear gas fired at looters across the street forced him to pause efforts. Police had imposed an overnight curfew to control looters who sacked virtually every market in the city.

Across the Bio Bio River in the city of San Pedro, looters cleared out a shopping mall. A video store was set ablaze, two automatic teller machines were broken open, a bank was robbed and a supermarket emptied, the Associated Press reported.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet dispatched 10,000 troops to restore order and help rescue efforts in hard-hit southern towns. Ms. Bachelet predicted the number of dead would grow. Two million people were displaced, she said.

"We're facing an unthinkable catastrophe that will require an enormous effort in resources," Ms. Bachelet said in a nationally televised address.

The magnitude 8.8 quake, the fifth-biggest ever measured, struck off Chile's coast around 3:30 a.m. local time Saturday, toppling buildings, twisting roadways and driving deadly waves into seaside towns. Damage to power and communications systems further hindered rescue effortsMost of the confirmed deaths so far are in the Maule region on the Chilean coast, which was closest to the epicenter. As much as 80% of some towns in the region was destroyed, officials said.

"Unfortunately, we found whole families buried in the rubble," said Alejandro Boettiger, a firefighter from the southern city of Talca. An exhausted Mr. Boettiger spoke as he carried an elderly woman out of her badly damaged apartment building.

In tiny Pelluhue, a southern coastal village of 1,000, waves harpooned 70-foot cypress trees into beachfront homes, while washing other houses up onto the slopes above town. Plywood and other debris littered the coast and floated offshore.

"The earth started shaking so violently that we couldn't stand," said Maria Julia Aguilar, who was vacationing with her husband in Pelluhue. As they struggled to their feet and fled, the sound of waves crushing houses cracked along the shoreline. Returning later, she said, she saw four bodies half-buried in the sand.

Clara Lepe was asleep in her beachfront home when the quake jarred her awake. She fled with her husband and two daughters in their four-wheel-drive vehicle. In the panic, Ms. Lepe said, two cars crashed head-on as residents tried to get away from the shore.

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