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Chile's Warning

To say the apartment building collapsed would be an understatement. Rather, it tipped over, the way a tree does when it's chopped down. The ceiling of the lobby now sits vertically, at ninety degrees to the floor.

Alto Rio After.jpgThe other fourteen floors lay along a full city block, on their sides - windows broken, drapes fluttering, chandeliers hanging at odd angles inside. The sign advertising sunny new condominiums is half buried in the rubble.

Alto Rio was one of Concepcion's newest apartment buildings, a project of a respected local contractor. It was supposedly built using the latest standards for earthquake-proofing highrises in a country that takes such things very seriously. And yet, it was the most dramatic casualty of February's 8.8 quake.

"We need to know what went wrong here. We must," says the magistrate, as I tour the site with him. Eight people died here, crushed to death instantly. Many others had to be rescued by firefighters who spent hours drilling their way through walls. The magistrate started his investigation the next day, painstakingly going over the building's plans and examining pillars that end a metre or so above the ground.

Alto Rio Before.jpg"This should not have happened," he says, shaking his head.

Indeed, as I drive around the city, it does seem as though the towers that were severely damaged were anomalies. Exceptions in a city where most skyscrapers still stand soundly.

But the very fact that there are so many exceptions - perhaps as many as 20 per cent - is surprising and frightening to engineers here. They wonder if the reinforced concrete was reinforced enough, if the steel rods were thick enough, woven well enough through the cement.

If all the rules were followed, the engineers tell me, the rules aren't tough enough. They are already being rewritten. Buildings currently under construction are adding concrete and steel in an improvised attempt to compensate for the strength of future earthquakes.

And for Canadians who live in earthquake zones, this should be just as frightening. Our standards aren't even as demanding as the ones Chile used to use, the ones that have now been found lacking.