CONCEPCIÓN, Chile - Heroism and banditry mingled on Chile's shattered streets yesterday as rescuers braved aftershocks in digging for survivors and the government sent soldiers and ordered a nighttime curfew to quell looting. The death toll climbed to 708 in one of the biggest earthquakes in centuries.
In this hard-hit city, firefighters pulling survivors from a toppled apartment block were forced to pause because of tear gas fired to stop looters, who were wheeling off everything from microwave ovens to canned milk at a damaged supermarket nearby.
Efforts to determine the full scope of destruction were undermined by an endless string of terrifying aftershocks that continued to turn buildings into rubble. Officials said 500,000 houses were destroyed or badly damaged, and President Michelle Bachelet said "a growing number" of people were missing.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department urged Americans to avoid nonessential travel to Chile. U.S. citizens here were asked to contact family and friends in the United States, and those without access to a phone or the Internet were encouraged to register with the U.S. Embassy or a consulate.
Bachelet gave the military control over security in the province of Concepción.
Virtually every market had been looted, and no food or drinking water could be found. Many people in Concepción expressed anger with the authorities for not stopping the looting or not bringing in supplies. Electricity and water supply were out of service. "We are overwhelmed," a police officer said.
Bachelet said a curfew was being imposed from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., and only security forces and other emergency personnel would be allowed on the streets. Police vehicles drove around, announcing the curfew over loudspeakers.
As night neared, hundreds of people put up tents and huddled around wood fires in parks and the grassy medians of avenues, too fearful of returning to their homes amid the aftershocks.
Bachelet, who leaves office March 11, said the country would accept some of the offers of aid that have poured in from around the world. She said Chile needs field hospitals and temporary bridges, water purification plants and damage assessment experts - as well as rescuers to help relieve those who have been laboring frantically since the magnitude-8.8 quake struck before dawn Saturday.
To do away with any need for looting, Bachelet announced that essentials on the shelves of major supermarkets would be given away for free, under the supervision of authorities.