Friday, January 09, 2009

Death toll rises to 15 after Costa Rica quake, dozens still missing

San Jose (AFP) — The official death toll after Costa Rica's strongest earthquake in decades rose to 15, with scores missing and injured, while some 150 stranded tourists were finally rescued.

Helicopters picked up some of the tourists, most from the United States, France, Canada and Spain, while others scrambled up mountain pathes to finally reach rescue workers from near the Poas volcano, the epicenter of Thursday's 6.1 magnitude quake.

At nightfall around 100 people were still stranded in the region around the capital San Jose, including around 50 in the area of Cinchona, one of the worst hit by the the temblor and accessible only by helicopter, according to the Red Cross.

Helicopters also evacuated a group of tourists trapped on a parking lot at a hotel near the La Paz waterfalls, a top tourist attraction.

Many on the ground said the official toll of 15 was likely to rise when rescue workers finally reached isolated villages and cars buried by mudslides.

Costa Rica's Central American neighbors, Colombia, the United States and China had offered aid to victims of the quake, President Oscar Arias said Friday after visiting the worst-hit zones.

"What I saw with my own eyes is that the consequences of the earthquake are worse than I had imagined," Arias said.

Rescue teams struggled in rain and mist Friday to reach hundreds stranded in mountainous central zones, as cracked roads, fallen trees and earth impeded their efforts in the farming region home to popular tourist sites.

The strongest quake to shake the country in the last 150 years was followed by several aftershocks and collapsed homes in and around the capital.

The first reported victims included two young sisters who had been selling sweets and died in a landslide near the epicenter. A 12-year-old girl was also crushed by a wall in her home near the Poas volcano.

The National Emergency Board declared a red alert in the metropolitan area of the central valley where 2.5 million of the country's four million people live, including San Jose, Cartago, Alajuela and Heredia.

The US army sent two Blackhawk helicopters, based in Honduras, to help with the operations. The government had contracted most private helicopters in the country, which has no army.

The quake hit at 1:21 pm (1921 GMT) Thursday, some 30 kilometers (20 miles) northwest of the capital, shaking water out of swimming pools.

It was felt across the country, a popular ecotourism and beach holiday destination, as well as in neighboring Nicaragua to the north.

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