By Nicholas Casey and Maggy Ayala
The narrow, six-mile road that connected El Matal, a fishing village, to the main highway disintegrated from the earth’s violent heaves, severing it from all outside contact.
It would be three days before anyone arrived.
Residents took to the rubble with shovels and sticks, to little avail. Some used their hands to push away debris from a sandy cliff that had collapsed, smothering all the homes below.
There was no water, no electricity. And with all phone lines severed, there would be no calling for help.
On Tuesday, a military helicopter made the 40-minute flight from the provincial capital, Portoviejo, ferrying supplies and a New York Times reporter and photographer.
“You ask what buildings fell? The question is what building didn’t fall,” said Eduardo Alciva Domínguez, 59, a fisherman who had been heading out to cast nets when the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck on Saturday evening.
The earthquake, the largest to hit Ecuador in decades, has killed over 500 people, the attorney general’s office said late Tuesday.
But in some ways the scarier number was for the missing — roughly 1,700, according to the deputy interior minister, Diego Fuentes, who added that 2,500 were injured.
If confirmed, that means the total number of deaths could multiply in the days ahead as rescuers reach remote fishing villages like this one.
The quake basically split the northern plains of this impoverished Andean nation in two.
On one side are towns like Portoviejo that are connected by the main highway. While these towns are battered and broken, emergency workers have descended from around the world to rescue survivors and bury the dead, which have numbered more than 100.
On the other side are dozens of towns and villages where roads were blocked or obliterated by the quake and where no rescue workers initially came. Fewer may be trapped there, but fewer are believed to have survived.
In El Matal, where firefighters arrived on Monday, only two of the missing have been found so far, and both were dead. No one has an overall figure for the missing.
On Tuesday morning a forklift plowed the remains of a landslide overlooking the sea. It was impossible to tell that there had even been a home there, which survivors said had belonged to a middle-aged man and his wife.
Scanning equipment had revealed what all assumed was a body. A crowd had gathered. The forklift stopped its work as a team of dogs entered where the dirt had been cleared, sniffing for scents of death.
“This isn’t the kind of village where we’re expecting to find anyone alive,” said Enrique Anguasha, a fireman who had arrived in El Matal on Tuesday morning.
Dread also was felt in towns like Portoviejo where the window for finding survivors appeared to be closing.
At the remains of El Gato hotel, once a five-story complex in the city’s damaged center, scores of police and firefighters dug into the rubble for a fourth day to find guests and workers who had been buried there.
On Monday, a receptionist, Pablo Córdova, was found alive in the rubble. On Tuesday, Gloria Caiche Méndez looked on with desperation, hoping the rescue workers could repeat the miracle for her husband, Angel Figueroa, who had stayed there the night of the earthquake.
Mr. Figueroa, a 63-year-old executive who sold thread, had come from the city of Guayaquil to the south for a monthly visit with clients. Ten minutes before the earthquake struck, he called his wife to tell her about the events of the day, then went to bed.
“He was a good man, with lots of faith in God, and he prayed every day to thank God for his life,” Ms. Caiche said. In three heart-stopping moments in the last few days, she said, rescue workers thought they had found her husband.
It was a different scene in Jama, a remote town of 2,000, where some rescue workers had arrived only an hour before a reporter did. “We don’t even know what this place was called,” said Maj. Eduardo Mera, who was leading a squad of firefighters to begin taking apart the remains.
The hotel in Jama was called Don Nestor, according to the owner, Eugenia Cevallos, who stood in front of a pile of rebar and rubble while rescue workers asked her about possible survivors buried beneath.
“No one,” she said.
“Who was it then that was heard screaming yesterday from the rubble?” asked one of the rescue workers.
Another witness mentioned that a pastor leading a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses had been inside praying when the earthquake struck. Others said they had already left. There was only confusion as the forklift worked.
In El Matal, the arriving military helicopter brought some of the first supplies the town had seen since the disaster: water, bananas, yucca and cereal, among other supplies. It also carried two empty coffins.
“For whoever needs them,” a soldier said.
Isabel Pico, El Matal’s mayor, came in a pickup truck to collect the food while crowds gathered to receive it. “The food will keep us alive, but our village is destroyed and I am not sure how we will recover,” she said.
Down the road, José Luis Rodríguez, a fisherman, recalled the two days of waiting as his daughter Keyla, 5, lay under what had been his home. When the earthquake hit, he had been on the beach and rushed back to find the three-story building, where he had rented the bottom floor, flattened.
Realizing no rescue was coming soon, he gathered every friend and relative he could find and the group of around 40 took to removing the rebar and concrete with their hands. By 7 a.m. the next day, Mr. Rodríguez could hear his daughter.
“She was screaming to me and we couldn’t reach her,” he said.
On Monday morning the first firefighters arrived and helped pull Keyla from the rubble alive.
“What future is there for her here?” said Mr. Rodríguez. “We may need to find a different town.”
Credit: The New York Times, www.nytimes.com