Saturday, March 6, 2010

Covering the Chile Quake

I was the first reporter on the scene in Chile for CNN following the Feb. 27th earthquake and one of the first international correspondents to report live from near the quake’s epicenter in Concepción. Here's an account of my journey to the quake zone.

When the phone rang at 5:30am on Saturday, I was still slumbering with the sounds of the Coldplay concert I had attended a few hours earlier, so it was a quick change of gears when the CNN International Desk in Atlanta alerted me that there had been a major earthquake in Chile, and that I was to begin reporting on the story immediately.

I quickly learned that an 8.8 magnitude quake had hit south central Chile and that tremors had rattled cities as far away as Buenos Aires, where I live, although I didn’t feel any. I soon began monitoring Chilean media online and did a few live phone reports for CNN International about the developing situation. I then started making plans to get into Chile. It wouldn’t be easy. The Santiago airport was closed, so I considered my quickest bet would be to fly from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, the wine-growing city in western Argentina that lays 180 kms east of Santiago. That option would require an overnight odyssey crossing the rugged Andes Mountains on a high-altitude road full of switchbacks. A few hours later, I was on a plane, and by midnight I had made my way through the Cristo Redentor tunnel and to the border crossing at 3,500 meters. The air was cold, and the road was curvy, but fortunately a full moon helped guide our way and at 2am on Sunday morning -- less than 24 hours after the quake -- cameraman Juan Pablo Lanciotti and I were in Santiago, where darkness blanketed neighborhoods for miles and where we saw people camping in tents in front of roaring fires.

Highway overpasses had collapsed and it was nearly impossible to drive on certain sections. In the posh neighborhood of Providencia, the steeple of a 120-year-old church tethered precariously over a main thoroughfare. We made our way to a budget hotel to meet up with CNN en Espanol’s Guillermo Fontana and cameraman Ivan Slodky, whom had arrived a few hours earlier. Dozens of guests were sleeping in the hotel lobby; too terrified to sleep in their rooms, as aftershocks were still rampant. We immediately got to work sending the video that we had shot on our trip, but a glacier-slow internet connection meant it took us three hours to upload the material to Atlanta, and before we had time to even close our eyes for a minute’s sleep, the sun was up, and we were outside again, preparing for what would be the first of some two-dozen live reports I would do in the coming days.

We were then on the road again, heading south towards the epicenter in Concepción. As we drove down the Pan-American Highway (Rt. 5) we quickly realized that the damage was severe to the road. Much of the highway was cracked, with deep, fault-line crevices in the asphalt. We had to take detours onto rural routes and into small villages. In a town called Hospital, I saw scores of one-story adobe homes that had been flattened like pancakes. One woman grabbed me to show me the damage to her neighbor’s home, saying that the family had fled on foot and not been seen since. I spotted two nuns searching unsuccessfully for water at a small market. When we reached the Rio Claro in the Maule region, we saw that a huge section of the Rt. 5 bridge had crashed into the water below. An overturned passenger bus sat on the side of the highway, close to mangled power lines. Nearby, a 3-story metal silo looked like a crushed beer can. Lines at roadside gas stations stretched for half-a-mile. We passed a funeral procession; the battered hearse glided cautiously over the damaged road; I still wonder if the deceased was a victim of the quake.

About four hours from our destination, our luck started to sour too. Our two-car convoy became one when the engine of our van ceased up. We had to abandon it and scramble to consolidate all our gear and pack five tired, sweaty and anxious men into a small sedan for the final stretch into Concepción. When we arrived around 8pm, what I saw truly shocked me. Thousands of people were running in the streets, looting stores and scavenging for water inside a dirty public fountain. At gas stations, people were dipping long tubes into tanks below, siphoning fuel to power their cars, water pumps and generators. Dusk was setting in and the 9pm curfew was just minutes away. It was clear that authorities had zero control over the city. As we approached the Rio Alto Building, I quickly recognized it from the cover of the morning’s papers; it was a 15-story apartment building that collapsed with more than 100 people inside. I knew that CNN Chile had their satellite truck stationed nearby and I was anxious to get on the air as soon as possible to report all that I had seen. With the wrecked building and busy rescue workers as a backdrop, I went on the air on CNN International in the 7pm ET hour on Sunday night and described the destruction that I had been witnessing all day. I reported live throughout the night and into the morning and following afternoon, speaking to CNN U.S., CNN International and CNN affiliate stations throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Early Monday morning, other CNN crews began showing up, all of whom had also had long and difficult journeys arriving to Concepción. Everyone looked ragged, but they soon set out to tell the story of the earthquake’s devastation, traveling to neighborhoods in Concepción city and to coastal villages wiped out by the ensuing tsunamis.

In downtown Concepción, the street fronting the collapsed Rio Alto building quickly turned into a makeshift media center, with journalists from around the globe descending there to do live reports and get updates from Chilean officials. The CNN team has had to live exactly like the residents of Concepcion, without electricity, running water or heat. No toilets or showers has meant that hygiene has taken a hit, and we’ve had to subside on granola bars, tuna and water.

As Chile continues to dig out from the wreckage, more sad and also inspiring stories are being revealed. Many media outlets have insisted on comparing Chile’s earthquake to the one that occurred in Haiti the month before. I don’t think this is necessary or fair. Each tragedy deserves its own reporting, analysis and response. Chile is a strong country, but it needs the world’s help to respond to this crisis; I think CNN is doing its part to let the world know just that and I am proud to be a part of it.

All photos by Brian Byrnes. Copyright 2010.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amazing BB. Thanks for the coverage and stay safe!