Mexicans huddle in shelters, assess damage left behind by quake

Friday, January 24, 2003

TECOMAN, Mexico -- Ignoring police blockades, residents filtered into the ghostly center of this city Thursday to see what was left of their homes and businesses after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated the area.

The quake Tuesday killed 28 people, injured 300 and left 10,000 homeless. Though only four were killed in Tecoman, a third of the city's buildings were destroyed.

"Everything has changed. Everything is destroyed," Alma Montes de Oca, 25, said when she saw the collapsed real estate office where she works as a secretary.

Across the street, Mexican sailors worked to clear chunks of concrete that had toppled into the street from a bank.

Of the 28 deaths, 25 were in the state of Colima, and the majority of those died in the state capital, also called Colima. The region is about 300 miles west of Mexico City.

Rescue efforts were called off Thursday. Officials said they had retrieved all the bodies and survivors from the rubble.

'Worst' is over

"The worst of the emergency is over, the part about getting to people who could be trapped," said Javier Velasco, secretary of Colima state civil defense council. "We don't have any people reported missing and we're pretty sure that there are no more people under the rubble."

At a disaster shelter improvised in a gymnasium in Tecoman, 20-year-old Erica Nunez spent the night on a thin foam pad with her two toddlers and her husband, Jose Antonio Guzman. Nunez recalled how they escaped their home as it collapsed in the quake.

"Some of the walls began to fall in, but we weren't hurt and we managed to get out," Nunez said as one of her boys slept on the mat at her feet. "It scared me a lot and I got very nervous, so we came here to wait until the danger had passed."

Aftershocks continued to rattle the region. A 5.8-magnitude aftershock sent people rushing into the streets Wednesday, one of at least 12 tremors ranging in magnitude from 3.9 to 5.3 that have shaken the area since Tuesday.

About 20 neighbors in Tecoman, 25 miles south of Colima, slept in tents pitched on a soccer field, because they were afraid to return to their homes after large cracks appeared in the structures during the quake.

"We feel safer this way," said Lilia Murgia, 45, outside her tent. "When you hear an earthquake, it seems like everything is going to come down on top of you, and if it catches you sleeping ..."

The poor were among the hardest hit, since many of them live in old homes of mud, brick and tile that suffered some of the heaviest damage.

"There are people here who lost everything," said Hector Perestrego, shelter organizer in Tecoman.

German Estrada, 24, surveyed the huge cracks that had opened for yards along the walls of the brick-and-concrete El Pechugon chicken restaurant he manages.

"I'm afraid that with the aftershocks we've been having, the whole thing could come tumbling down on top of us," said Estrada. "We're just starting to pick up some of the trash and look at things."

In California, Mexican migrants from the region began gathering aid. Nearly half the estimated 50,000 U.S. migrants from Colima live in Southern California, according to the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles.

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