* 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 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
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.
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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
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)