Wednesday, April 02, 2014

25,000 People Buried Alive: Yungay, Peru; May 31, 1970

The recent Oso landslide that has killed at least 29 people and today's Chile's 8.2 earthquake that has killed six people are truly devastating events that resulted in loss of life and property.  But a disaster that struck the coast of Peru 34 years ago at 3:23 pm., on May 31, 1970, is still vividly remembered. In 2000, Peru designated May 31 as Natural Disaster Education and Reflection Day, in memory of the deadliest seismic disaster in the history of Latin America.

An earthquake jolted the South American country of Peru causing enormous damage in Peru's coastal department of Ancash. In the city of Huaraz, as many as 20,000 people died in the crumbling buildings. Chimbote and other towns in the area were also greatly damaged or destroyed. The quake's focus was 15 miles off the coast of Peru, far below the Pacific Ocean seafloor. Due to the great depth of its point of origin, the quake did not disturb the seabed, so no major tsunamis occurred. But while it produced no killers from the ocean depths, the quake triggered some deadly events from the heights of Peru.

The quake shook loose a huge mass of material from Huascaran, the 22,205-foot mountain that is Peru's highest peak, unleashing a combination avalanche-landslide. Millions of tons of snow, ice, rocks, and mud shot down the mountain's slopes at speeds sometimes exceeding 150 miles per hour. In Yungay, 25,000 people were buried alive. Only 92 people survived this tragedy, most of whom were in the cemetery and stadium at the time of the earthquake. These zones were the highest in town. After the disaster the Peruvian government forbade any excavation in the area, declaring it a national cemetery.

Elsewhere the half-mile-wide mass of debris flattened villages and farms like a giant bulldozer. When it finally ended, the Peruvian quake and accompanying landslide-avalanche had claimed nearly 80,000 lives and had destroyed the homes of nearly a million people. It was the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike North or South America.


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