Friday, January 09, 2009

Tourists evacuated after fatal Costa Rica quake

(Reuters/Roger Benavides)Vara Blanca, Costa Rica (Reuters) – Rescue helicopters ferried stranded tourists on Friday from a picturesque volcanic area in Costa Rica where a strong earthquake killed around 14 people.

Two people were buried when Thursday's 6.2-magnitude quake triggered landslides near the La Paz waterfall at Vara Blanca, on the flanks of the Poas Volcano, officials said. A dozen people were killed in nearby areas.

"There are landslides on all the roads," said Guillermo Schwartz, a tourist from Guatemala. "The helicopters are trying to get people to the airport in San Jose."

Four children were killed but the Red Cross struggled to give an exact death count as rescue workers combed jungle paths for victims and emergency officials checked lists of names with tour operators.

"It was terrifying," said Spanish tourist Nazario Llinarez, 50, who described how he was at the waterfall with his wife when part of the hillside collapsed. The couple scrambled up a slope and spent the night huddled in a bus before being evacuated by helicopter.

Constant aftershocks complicated the rescue effort, and aerial photos showed collapsed buildings and huge swathes of reddish earth where chunks of hillside had fallen away.

"There could be between 10 and 18 people missing, but we hope they are wandering about in the mountains somewhere," said Victor Falla, an official for the National Emergency Commission at a base near the area. "Until we see the bodies we can't say how many dead there are."

He said there were small tremors every couple of minutes. "It's shaking right now," he told Reuters by cell phone.

BROKEN LIMBS, BRUISING

Tourists and local residents suffered broken limbs and bruising when falling rock hit houses, cars and a hotel next to the thundering waterfall deep in the jungle.

It was not clear if the dead included foreign visitors, but the U.S. Embassy in San Jose said some 40 to 60 American tourists in the area, northwest of the capital San Jose, were unharmed.

The landslides devastated the Poas Volcano National Park and tore apart a road leading down to the La Paz waterfall, leaving about 300 trapped tourists and locals to spend a chilly night trapped in the valley at Vara Blanca.

Tour operators flew British, American, French and Dutch tourists back to San Jose and the government flew injured Costa Ricans to nearby hospitals.

Around 100 people safely left the area, Falla said, either by helicopter or by trekking up the mountainside to a road. The collapsed main road was beyond repair, he said.

Among the children reported dead on Thursday was a teenager crushed when her home collapsed in a landslide and two young girls selling candy on the slope of the Poas Volcano.

Trapped tourists lit bonfires overnight to keep warm. Landslides left buses tipped on their sides and several bridges in the area were destroyed.

"There are many buses and many vehicles that are trapped," deputy public safety minister Jose Torres said.

Costa Rica is a popular tourist destination due to its lush natural parks, volcanoes and rich wildlife, but is prone like the rest of Central America to natural disasters.

(Additional reporting by John McPhaul; Writing by Catherine Bremer, editing by Chris Wilson)

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