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Surrounded by Death, Survivors of Ecuador’s Massive Earthquake Fear Being Forgotten

Nearly a week after the 7.8 quake struck, the death toll has risen to at least 587. Rescue dogs roaming the devastated town of Pedernales now only bark when they find a new corpse.

by Soraya Constante
Apr 22 2016, 4:30pm

Photo by Edu León/VICE News

María Zambrano refuses to leave Pedernales, the coastal town and low-key resort that lies at the center of the area devastated by Ecuador's worst earthquake in decades.

"What would my husband say? That I waited for him to die and then went on my way," the 74-year-old asks and answers. "I'm staying here."

María's determination to stay put has resisted the entreaties of her 11 children, some of whom live in other cities and want to take her with them. It ignores the devastation all around her, the hundreds of aftershocks, and the risk of disease.

Nearly a week after the 7.8 quake struck, the national death toll has risen to at least 587. Another 155 people are still missing. Many survivors, meanwhile, are still sleeping rough or in shelters, with food and water in short supply in some areas.

María's family is now crammed into the backyard of her crumbled house where they have built an improvised shelter with poles and black plastic bags. That makeshift structure serves as the kitchen and dining room during the day, and as a communal bedroom during the night.

Last Sunday the plastic structure was also used to hold a vigil for the elderly survivor's husband, 86-year-old Wilfrido Laaz, after he was pulled from the rubble.

Wilfrido was sitting on his favorite armchair, where he received visitors, when the quake struck the night before. María says she doesn't know what stopped him going upstairs with her.

"It's almost as if he was waiting for this to leave the world," she says. "He had the time to go upstairs, but he calmly sat there."

When a hotel and billiard hall next door collapsed into their wooden home it pushed the second floor into a neighboring house. It buried the first level, and with that it buried Wilfrido.

Photo by Edu León/VICE News

The first one to arrive at the scene was one of the couple's younger children, 39-year-old Agustín Laaz. He'd been at a nearby shopping mall when the quake struck.

He said he ran home in a frenzy, dodging loose electricity cables that sizzled in the air before the supply shut off, while a thick cloud of smoke blocked his vision. When he reached his street, Agustín screamed for his father, but only his mother answered. He climbed the pile of rubble and carried his mother outside the house. He knew that his father must be dead.

Agustín's initial efforts to get his father out of rubble the following morning failed, because of the amount of wreckage from the heavy buildings that had collapsed on top of the house. When he realized that, he searched for a mechanical excavator to move the pile of concrete and steel.

The family said that most of the first bodies were recovered that way in Pedernales, though the use of heavy machinery goes against international guidelines. These stress that there should only be manual searches for the first 72 hours after a quake, so as not to endanger vital air spaces that could be keeping a survivor alive.

"The local population was the first to help and I think they had a quick response," said Wilson Jaramillo, head of the so-called topo, or mole, rescue brigade from Mexico that travelled to Ecuador in the wake of the quake. "We were surprised by these procedures, but we respect the local decisions."

Photo by Edu León/VICE News

Before it became a disaster zone, Pedernales was a busy beach, long popular with residents of the neighboring mountains.

It had been nearly completely isolated until the 1960s, when it was only reachable by canoe and army planes. Then the roads came and a mini boom began. Though it was never a big tourist attraction, hotels had been sprouting along the seafront and in the centre for about 10 years — buildings that looked a bit odd among the wooden homes that filled the town.

As she sits in her plastic-bag shelter with her family, María Zambrano says life was good in the old Pedernales before it became the easiest beach to get to from the capital, Quito.

Together with Wilfrido she grew yuca, corn, and peanuts on a small farm. Their daughters worked the land during the weekends and their income was guaranteed. But the kids grew up fast and the farm was left unattended.

Wilfrido then got sick with osteoporosis so the family decided to move to a wooden house in the city centre. The same home that has now collapsed.

Photo by Edu León/VICE News

An estimated 60 percent of the houses, and 95 percent of the total hotel industry has fallen down. The 7.8 tremor, that some locals describe as feeling like an underground wave, caused the pier's bricks to fall out.

Some survivors now remember the old airport that was called Maximino Puertas, and wish it were still open so that help could arrive faster. It was shut down thirty years ago. The old runway is now the town's widest street.

The first four days of the quake saw 186 bodies recovered from the rubble, mostly Pedernales residents. Brigades had yet to search in the beach area, filled with hotels and, probably, bodies of vacationers.

Meanwhile, specially-trained dogs roam. There are two types of dogs: the ones that bark when they find a live person, and the ones who bark when they find a corpse. The streets of Pedernales are now filled only with the barks of the second kind of dogs.

The road to recovery won't be easy. After burying the dead and cleaning up the ruins, water, electricity, and phone lines have to be restored. And then there's the rebuilding and that will cost money. And it will take time, something the residents of Pedernales feel they don't have because they know that it won't take long for their plight to be pushed out of people's minds.

"I hope they don't forget about us," said Agustín Laaz. "I hope the town can rise again."

Related: Rescue Workers Are Losing Hope of Finding Survivors After Ecuador's Massive Earthquake

Follow Soraya Constante on Twitter: @Sory_Constante