July 29, 2009

Peru 2009 - Yungay Tragedy

On day 3 we had the opportunity to visit the town of Yungay. Yungay is a small town in the valley just south of Huaraz. It is also the site of a horrible tragedy.

On May 31, 1970, an undersea earthquake off the coast of Casma and Chimbote, north of Lima, triggered one of the most cataclysmic avalanches in recorded history – wiping out the entire highland town of Yungay and most of its 25,000 inhabitants.

Around 3:23 PM, local time, while most were tuned in to the Italy-Brazil FIFA World Cup Match, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Peru. Lasting 45 seconds, the earthquake crumbled adobe homes, bridges, roads and schools across 83,000 square kilometers, an area larger than Belgium and the Netherlands combined. Registered as one of the worst earthquakes ever to be experienced in South America, damages and casualties were reported as far as Tumbes, Iquitos and Pisco, as well as in some parts of Ecuador and Brazil.

In Yungay, a small highland town in the picturesque Callejon de Huaylas, founded by Domingo Santo Tomás in 1540, the earthquake triggered an even greater calamity.

The quake destabilized the glacier on the north face of Mount Huascarán, causing 10 million cubic meters of rock, ice and snow to break away and tear down its slope at more than 120 miles per hour.

As it thundered down toward Yungay, and the town of Ranrahirca on the other side of the ridge, the wave of debris picked up more glacial deposits and began to spit out mud, dust, and boulders. By the time it reached the valley - barely three minutes later 3,000 feet-wide wave was estimated to have consisted of about 80 million cubic meters of ice, mud, and rocks.

Within moments, what was Yungay and its 25,000 inhabitants – many of whom had rushed into the church to pray after the earthquake struck – were buried and crushed by the landslide.

The reported death toll from what came to be known as Peru’s Great Earthquake totaled more than 74,000 people. About 25,600 were declared missing, over 143,000 were injured and more than one million left homeless. The city of Huaraz was rubble, the valley buried in mud, and coastal towns such as Casma were also shaken to the ground.

In Yungay, only some 350 people survived, including the few who were able to climb to the town’s elevated step-like cemetery.

Among the survivors were 300 children, who had been taken to the circus at the local stadium, set on higher ground and on the outskirts of the town.

Today, Yungay is a national cemetery, and the Huascarán’s victims are still vividly remembered.

To this day, a crushed intercity bus, four of the original palm trees that once crowned the city’s main plaza and remnants of the cathedral still stand.


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