Related topics

Aftershock Rattles Colombia

January 31, 1999

ARMENIA, Colombia (AP) _ Thousands of people made homeless by a powerful earthquake boarded buses, pickup trucks and horse-drawn carriages Saturday in a scramble to get out of this unruly and increasingly pestilent city.

Many were frustrated with the government’s disorganized effort to restore order and deliver relief supplies to areas devastated by Monday’s magnitude-6 quake, which killed at least 940 people across Colombia’s western coffee-growing region.

A magnitude-4.3 aftershock rattled the area early Saturday, causing alarm but no reports of damage or injury.

Despite a combined police and military presence approaching 6,000, looters sacked several more Armenia markets on Saturday, taking furniture, mirrors, fans, mattresses, stoves, computers and other goods. Thirty-seven people were arrested.

At a few stores, vastly outnumbered police were unable to stop the looting by hungry survivors and instead tried to maintain order to prevent a repeat of Friday’s violence, in which angry looters clashed with police.

A few stores reopened for the first time since the quake, including a supermarket that was heavily guarded by soldiers with automatic rifles and tear gas launchers.

Colombian rescuers continued sifting through dozens of disaster sites, looking for the hundreds of missing, but some foreign rescue teams went home, convinced that the chance of finding life beneath the ruins had run out. The last time a survivor was pulled from the rubble was Wednesday.

Passers-by wore surgical masks and handkerchiefs to ward off the unbearable stench of trapped bodies decaying as well as feces and urine in the streets.

Doctors are watching the situation carefully, fearful of a health crisis. So far, there have been only small outbreaks of stomach and breathing problems.

At Armenia’s Eden Airport, residents attempting to leave on relief aircraft were stopped by rows of helmeted riot police. About 50 families with suitcases and boxes had lined up at dawn, lured by rumors of free flights on relief planes returning empty to the capital, Bogota.

The air force, which is flying dozens of relief missions daily, said it had taken more than 600 people with relatives in Bogota back to the capital before Saturday. But they stopped taking residents.

Patricia Escobar was trying to evacuate her 3-year-old nephew, who has Down Syndrome. Doctors told her the boy was vulnerable to infections from the fetid air blanketing Armenia, which hasn’t had running water since Monday.

Nelly Jaramillo, a mother of three with family in Bogota, looked angrily at the police barricade, and said the shortages and roaming bands of thieves had made life unbearable.

``The gangs are attacking the barrios to steal the little food we have,″ she said. ``The rations they’re giving out aren’t enough to feed the children.″

Many refugees took free bus rides offered by the government. But as word got around, there weren’t enough buses to take the crowds forming at staging points around the city.

More than 500 people gathered at a soccer stadium to take buses to Cali, Ibague and Manizales _ all cities within a close radius of the earthquake zone.

People wanting to go any farther would have to pay their own way, said Transport Ministry official Reynaldo Uribe. That angered 26-year-old security guard Alexander Castillo, who was desperate to get cousins, nephews, and his wife and baby daughter to a relative’s house in Bogota.

Dipping his hand into empty pockets, Castillo said he couldn’t afford the $15 tickets.

One man clip-clopped out of town on a horse-drawn carriage piled high with possessions.

Even firefighters who had spent the week unearthing quake victims from tons of debris in Armenia packed up and shipped out in frustration. The 50 firefighters, from other Colombian cities, had been working out of a tent camp because the central fire station was destroyed in the quake.

They were threatened by thieves on Friday and decided they’d had enough, fire chief Capt. Ciro Antonio Guiza said Saturday. Only 100 firefighters remain in this city of 300,000 people.

Former President Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, toured the quake zone _ which included the ruins of his childhood home in Pereira _ and committed the OAS to collecting quake relief.

President Andres Pastrana’s government on Friday announced $315 million in quake relief, and Cabinet ministers defended their much-criticized efforts to respond to one of the worst natural disasters to hit Colombia this century.

National civil defense chief Gen. Alfonso Vacca said foreign countries had donated 10,000 tents capable of housing about 70,000 people, but the government was still looking for places to set up refugee camps. The quake left an estimated 200,000 people homeless.

The government said it had sent 362 tons of relief supplies to the earthquake zone, while the U.N. World Food Program said it was distributing 200 tons of supplies. Chile sent 30 tons of aid and Germany increased its relief package to $2 million.

Vacca said many poor people will be reluctant to abandon their neighborhoods, fearful that looters who sacked hundreds of markets and homes last week will take what is left in their quake-damaged homes.

Omar Hernandez was tying down a 12-foot-high pile of living room furniture, mattresses and other odds and ends on the back of a white pickup truck at his severely damaged apartment building.

Thieves had taken the rest, he said, pulling down a surgical mask to speak.

Undeterred by the misery befalling Armenia, Hernandez said he was only bringing the truck to a friend’s house in an area where the damage was less. ``I’m not going anywhere,″ he said. ``This land is my life.″

Update hourly