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Solidarity Seen Among Tsunami Survivors, Rescuers in Chile

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Rescuers arrived in Bio Bio to encounter a completely different scenario from what they saw in downtown Concepcion.

"In earthquakes, buildings collapse and people remain trapped inside; but in tsunamis, buildings move and their residents swept away," said Manuel Munoz.

The deputy police investigator, who heads a 12-men rescue team made up of naval personnel, police officers and non-governmental organization staffers, has been put in charge of finding survivors and identifying victims in the far-off suburbs of Concepcion.

What Munoz's contingent faced with in Bio Bio was a town partly washed away by the tsunami immediately following the February 27 earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale.

Apart from the 16 confirmed deaths, there are still 40 people reported as missing when the rescuers arrived.

"Three hundred houses were destroyed, or more than half of the town," said Munoz who pointed to a partial house on top of tons of flotsam in what used to be the center of Bio Bio.

"That could have come from anywhere within a kilometer of here."

Inside a makeshift morgue turned from a container thrown in to the town center by tsunami waves, Munoz took the fingerprints of the deceased for ID purposes. His examining table was one salvaged from what remained of a home.

"My dad and my sister died in this car," said Marcelo Ortiz, placing plastic flowers on the bonnet of a grayish vehicle." They came back to drive it but were swept away with it when the waves came in again."

Seventy-seven-year-old Leon, a music professor, and 33-year-old Valeria had been warned to evacuate their car as the seashore receded six kilometers to the ocean to indicate a major tsunami, according to eyewitnesses.

But after two colossal tides of invading waves at 3 a.m and 5 a.m., the father and daughter thought it to be safe and they returned to the car at 7 a.m.

"My dad was only able to push my mom out of the side window which was luckily open at the time (when the third wave came in)," said Marcelo who felt especially sorry for his sister who was getting married this year and had so much to live for.

The fiance, Andre Almona Cid, added how his cousins manage to free themselves from the same doomed car before floating on cushions to peddle to rooftops and finally landing on firm soil again.

But two of his cousins are still unaccounted for and presumed dead from the tsunamis.

Marcelo's mother swam in churning waves for more than two hours before being saved and sent to a local hospital for pneumonia caused by sea water entering her lungs.

Despite the tragedy and ensuing sorrows, people can easily sense out the solidarity among the survivors and those who have rushed to help.

Felipe Romero, a high school student who came to the suburbs to help his friend's father, has stayed to participate in the rescue and relief efforts.

"We live in the higher parts of Concepcion, so we escaped (the tsunamis)," Romero said.

The town center of Concepcion was struck by the megaquake but it is too far inshore to suffer from the tsunamis.

"Many homes (in downtown Concepcion) are OK, but there are people who have nothing left. That is why I came to help others," Romero said.

He and 10 of his friends volunteered to work with naval officers who were bringing ashore rice, nappies, peaches, milk, flour, sugar and tarpaulins from Frigate Pratt which the government dispatched to ferry in emergency materials.

Frigate captain Leonardo Quijarro said that local residents were grateful to see the Navy in town.

His frigate arrived in the Concepcion bay not only bringing relief materials but also providing soul-soothing services like hairdressing.

"Seeing people arriving from the outside has lifted the morale," Quijarro said. A doctor and the hairdresser among the 120 crew members of the frigate have been especially welcome.

"The frigate hairdresser was brought in because for health reasons it is better to have short hair. And he has been very well received," Quijarro added.

(Xinhua News Agency March 7, 2010)