When the shaking stopped, Marioli Gatica and her extended family huddled in a circle on the floor of their seaside wooden home in this gritty port town, listening to the radio by a lantern’s light.
They heard firefighters urging Talcahuano’s citizens to stay calm and stay inside. They heard nothing of a tsunami – until it slammed into their house with an unearthly roar about an hour after Saturday’s magnitude 8.8 quake.
Gatica’s house exploded with water. She and her family were swept below the surface, swirling amid loose ship containers and other massive debris that smashed buildings into oblivion all around them.
“We were sitting there one moment and the next I looked up into the water and saw cables and furniture floating,” Gatica said.
She clung to her 11-year-old daughter, Ninoska Elgueta, but the rush of water ripped the girl from her hands. Then the wave retreated as suddenly as it came.
Two of the giant containers crushed Gatica’s home. A third landed seaward of where she floated, preventing the retreating tsunami from dragging her and other relatives away.
Soon Ninoska was back in her mother’s arms – she had grabbed a tree branch to avoid being swept away and climbed down as soon as the sea receded.
Gatica’s son, husband and 76-year-old father were OK as well, as were her sister and her family. The only relative missing was her 76-year-old mother, Nery Valdebenito, Gatica said as she waited in a hundreds-long line outside a school to report her losses.