Hundreds of campers feared killed by Chile tsunami

Thu Mar 4, 2010 3:53pm EST

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* Witnesses say several hundred were on devastated island

* Only a handful survived huge waves

* Bodies washing up on shore

By Ignacio Badal

ISLA ORREGO, Chile, March 4 (Reuters) - Several hundred people, many of them families with children, were visiting this small island to celebrate the end of summer when Chile's worst earthquake in decades struck and caused huge ocean waves.

Five days later, fisherman Mario Leal stares into the distance and mourns the families who were there, including his wife and two young children.

"Everyone died there, whole families of 10 to 12 people who were camping," said the 30-year-old, still clearly in shock.

"I lost everything. All my family and my house."

Orrego Island stands in the mouth of the river Maule that flanks the central Chilean town of Constitucion, where hundreds of people died in the quake and huge tsunami waves that followed in the early hours of Saturday.

The official death toll for the town stands at 350, but witnesses say hundreds of people from Orrego and other coastal areas are missing, which suggests that the nationwide death toll of just over 800 will rise.

Rescue officials in the region say they are not keeping record of people reported to have disappeared, even though some have estimated that up to 500 people could be missing.

About eight people on Orrego survived the ocean's onslaught, according to media reports, some of them by climbing trees moments before waves several meters high rolled in.

The bodies of those who didn't make it were still washing up on the shore on Thursday.

"I felt the tremor and swam across the river to look for a boat to help my family," said Leal, who buried his wife on Wednesday but has not found the bodies of his 7- and 9-year-old children.

He said Navy officers on the island told him he didn't need a boat because there was no risk of a tsunami, reflecting a failure at the national level to warn coastal residents due to incorrect data readings from the massive quake.

Leal ignored the advice and continued his search for a boat, but couldn't locate one in time. ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Take a Look on Chile earthquake [ID:nCHILE] Breakingviews column [ID:nN01102406] Graphic link.reuters.com/ram33j Reuters Insider on economy link.reuters.com/duk92j ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Hundreds of people were visiting the sparsely inhabited island to celebrate the "Noche Veneciana" festival that marks the end of summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

"Most of the people didn't have time to escape. Everyone was waiting for the start of a firework show," Patricia Franco, a 50-year-old teacher, was quoted as saying by Chile's El Mercurio newspaper.

One of the few confirmed survivors from Orrego, 23-year-old Mariela Rojas managed to get a lifejacket onto her 2-year-old son and held him tight as the wave washed them 20 km (12 miles) inland where they where finally rescued.

"I clung to him and just let the wave take us," she said.

Rojas and her son, Tommy, have since been camping on a hill, terrified of returning to lower ground. (Writing by Stuart Grudgings, Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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