Ecuador earthquake death toll nears 500, expected to rise

Rescuers in Ecuador were losing hope on Tuesday of finding more survivors from an earthquake that killed nearly 500 people and dealt a shattering blow to the South American country's already fragile economy.

4 Canadians among the dead after powerful quake

Ruben Mero is assisted by a relatives and paramedics after he was overcome with grief during the funeral of his niece, Kexly Valentino, who died in the earthquake, in Montecristi, Ecuador. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)

Rescuers in Ecuador were losing hope on Tuesday of finding more survivors from an earthquake that killed nearly 500 people and dealt a shattering blow to the South American OPEC country's already fragile economy.

Praying for miracles, distraught family members beseeched rescue teams to find missing loved ones as they used dogs, bare hands and excavators to hunt through debris of flattened homes, hotels and stores in the hardest-hit Pacific coastal region. The death toll stood at 480 on Tuesday afternoon, but was expected to rise.

The 7.8 magnitude quake, which struck late Saturday, also left 107 people missing, and injured more than 4,000, according to the latest government tallies. Supervising rescue work in the disaster zone, Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa said the quake inflicted between $2 billion and $3 billion US of damage to the oil-dependent economy and could knock two to three percentage points off growth.

"Let's not kid ourselves, it will be a long struggle ... Reconstruction for years, billions [of dollars] in investment," said Correa, who appeared deeply moved. "In the short term we're going to need tens of millions of dollars," Correa added from the quake-hit town of Tarqui, donning a mask, gloves and helmet.

Growth in Ecuador's small economy had already been forecast at near zero this year due to plunging oil revenues. The quake, Ecuador's worst in decades, destroyed or damaged about 1,500 buildings, triggered mudslides and left some 20,500 people sleeping in shelters, according to the government.

'Find my brother'

In Pedernales, a devastated rustic beach town, crowds gathered behind yellow tape to watch firemen and police sift through rubble overnight. The town's soccer stadium served as a relief center and morgue. Some residents wore masks to protect themselves from the smell of bodies decomposing in the heat.

"Find my brother! Please!" shouted Manuel, 17, throwing his arms to the sky by a corner store where his younger brother was working when the quake struck. When an onlooker said recovering a body would at least give him the comfort of burying his sibling, he yelled: "Don't say that!"

Three priests said prayers and sprinkled holy water on bodies being hauled out of the debris of a small supermarket near Pedernales' central square and church. The corpses of two adults and one child had already been carried out on stretchers, and firemen, soldiers and police were still scouring for a missing child.

A family wakes up after sleeping outside their collapsed home which was destroyed by an earthquake in Manta, Ecuador. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)

"My cousin said you could hear people yelling until yesterday," said Tito Torres, 20, the son of the store's owners, who rushed to Pedernales from Quito after the quake. His parents managed to run out of the store before the roof partially collapsed. "This is terrible," he said, adding survivors had been raiding the destroyed store for food.

Some 54 people had been rescued alive since Saturday, the government said, but time was running out for people with missing relatives. As of Tuesday, rescue efforts were more of a search for corpses, Interior Minister Jose Serrano told Reuters.

Smell of death

 In isolated villages and towns, survivors struggled without water, power or transport. Rescuers continued searching on Tuesday but the unmistakable smell of death told them what they were likely to find.

"There are bodies crushed in the wreckage and from the smell it's obvious they are dead," said Army Captain Marco Borja in the small tourist village of Canoa, adding that on Tuesday rescuers brought out as many as eight bodies. In 1979 a magnitude 7.7 quake in Ecuador killed at least 600 people and injured 20,000, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Relatives mourn the loss of their family members, victims of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, during a funeral service in Portoviejo, Ecuador, on Monday. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)

With presidential elections slated for next year, the government's response was under close scrutiny. Security forces and relief workers appeared to mobilize quickly and government officials were fast to reach scenes of disaster, but many survivors in isolated areas complained they still lacked water, food and medicines.

The mayor of Muisne island, closest to the epicenter of the quake, said all inhabitants had been evacuated to temporary shelters on the nearby mainland. "We've lost everything we acquired with years of work. We feel completely abandoned," he told local radio.

"We need the government to relocate us." Nearly 400 rescue workers flew in from countries in Latin America, along with 83 specialists from Switzerland and Spain. The United States said it would dispatch a team of disaster experts, while Cuba was sending doctors.

On Tuesday afternoon, USAID said on Twitter that disaster experts would work with the government in Ecuador to assess damage and identify needs. USAID was also providing "an initial $100,000 US for critical supplies to help communities affected by the earthquake" with more to come based on disaster assessments, the agency said.

U.S. President Barack Obama called Correa on Tuesday "to convey the condolences of the American people for the loss of life caused by the earthquake," the White House said.

To finance emergency efforts, some $600 million in credit from multilateral lenders was activated, Ecuador said. Ecuador also on Monday signed off on a $2 billion credit line from the China Development Bank to finance public investment.

Ecuador and China, the country's main financier since 2009, had been negotiating the credit before the quake.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?