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1,000 Die in Colombia Quake

January 26, 1999

ARMENIA, Colombia (AP) _ Stunned residents in Colombia’s coffee belt chose to wait out the night around bonfires rather than venture back into their crumpled homes today after a powerful earthquake killed at least 1,000 people and injured hundreds of others.

The magnitude 6 earthquake flattened cities and towns across western Colombia on Monday, rattling buildings as far away as the capital, Bogota, 140 miles from the epicenter.

Hundreds of the dead lived in Armenia, a city of 220,000 residents where entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble and left without water or electricity, and where residents say relief has been slow to arrive.

Capt. Ciro Antonio Guiza, the city’s deputy fire chief, said rescue workers were so strapped that many bodies remained on the street uncollected.

``There are more than 1,000 dead, perhaps more than 2,000 in Armenia alone,″ he said.

Hundreds of bodies were trapped in 25 buildings that collapsed, he said. In one ten-story apartment building alone, an estimated 60 people were crushed alive, Guiza said.

Iliana Patricia Vega, 26, paced the working-class Brasilia Nueva district in tears, her bright red dress torn, her right shoulder naked to the cool night.

``Oh, my baby, he was so beautiful,″ she said of her 10-year old son, Jon Alexander.

She was on the second floor with her son and 6-year-old daughter when everything collapsed, killing the boy almost immediately.

``Does anyone have any medicine. Can I get some medicine?″ she cried, fretting over a nasty gash to the little girl’s forehead.

Across the street, Pedro Maria Londono, 46, and the rest of his four-member family were miraculously saved when every room but the one they were in was buried in rubble.

``In 12 seconds, I lost what took 20 years to build,″ Londono said. ``Is the government going to help us?″

Just up the street, the corpse of Elda Rincon, 54, was covered with a white sheet.

``We’re going to incinerate my mother first thing in the morning,″ said 15-year-old Kevin Arboleda, one of the five sons she left.

Guiza said 60 percent of the city was destroyed. Worst hit were the poor southern districts. Some 340 bodies were collected at a makeshift morgue, but it would be hours before hundreds more could be recovered, he said.

``There’s no way to measure this crisis,″ said Alvaro Patino, Armenia’s mayor.

As Colombians reeled from the worst temblor to hit the quake-prone country since a 1994 earthquake killed 800 people, relief efforts continued through the night.

To applause from a crowd in the center of Armenia, Colombian Red Cross workers early today excavated three men who were trapped on the first floor of a four-story building for more than 13 hours.

The men were having coffee in a first-floor pawn shop and saved themselves by ducking between a large safe and the wall just before the floors above came bearing down on them like a deck of cards.

President Andres Pastrana toured the disaster zone Monday, vowing more federal aid after daybreak and urging his countrymen to chip in. Heeding the call, donors formed long lines at Bogota blood banks and rang telethons.

Landslides _ which had slowed the arrival of rescue equipment and supplies _ were cleared, and convoys of government vehicles with cranes and other heavy equipment converged on the disaster zone. An air force plane shuttled rescue equipment, medical supplies, food and blankets to the region late Monday.

Schools and stadiums were converted to makeshift shelters and morgues.

More than 350 patients were treated at the Southern Hospital in Armenia, where blood smeared the floors and walls and patients spent the night huddled on rusted gurneys. Doctors said at least 40 people had been pronounced dead at the facility.

Armenia’s three-story fire station had tumbled in pieces onto its 14 vehicles. At least nine people were killed when the building’s concrete floors and pillars came crashing down. Officers were also feared killed in the collapse of a police barracks.

Five members of the Colombian professional soccer club Atletico Quindio _ three Argentines and two Brazilians _ were also feared dead, trapped in the ruins of a hotel in downtown Armenia.

``There isn’t a point in the city’s geography which was not affected by this horrific tragedy,″ Patino told RCN radio. ``We need everything ... medicine, clothes ... electric generators,″ he said, urging Colombians in the United State to send aid.

``Look what we’ve come to,″ said 44-year-old Ana Maria Bedoya, pointing to her collapsed home in Brasilia Nueva.

Bedoya was watching television with her son and daughter when the earthquake knocked the house’s front wall onto the street. Had it gone the other way, it would have buried them.

``It’s an incredible thing,″ she said. ``You think about God. You think you’re going to die.″

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