How calamity makes the world kin

Nacho Castillo was working at his job with an airline in Madrid last week when he heard about the quake. As he's done in the past, he dropped everything, whistled to his German shepherd, and jumped on a plane for South America.

"Everyone is here," says Mr. Castillo, as he stands atop a ruined hotel in the city of Armenia, Colombia. "The Russians sent over a lot of dogs."

Castillo is one of hundreds of men and women from around the world who showed up to share the enormous task of rescue and recovery from the devastation that last week's earthquake has made of western Colombia. Firemen, engineers, medics - as well as dog-handlers - have come from as near as Peru and as far as Japan, along with the cash and tons of supplies sent by the United Nations and individual countries.

"That labrador saved nine people in the Viascas [Spain] landslide in 1996," says Jos Julio Urreas, a member of Castillo's three-man, three-dog team.

The Spanish team is working with some Japanese volunteers on top of what was the Hotel Armenia Plaza.

The hotel's seven floors have fallen in, and it is now about one story high. Somehow a small car is mixed in about eight feet of rubble. The dogs sniff through the wreckage. All a human nose can detect is concrete dust and the remnants of some tear gas, which soldiers loosed on an angry mob of survivors who were looting grocery stores downtown.

"The biggest problem has been the government. There has been no one point of information and organization. You ask who's in charge and no one ever is. We've wasted a lot of time," says Mr. Urreas.

Why governments falter

Not all the chaos can be blamed on the government, says John Anderson, a Scottish volunteer. "You know, if this happened in the UK we wouldn't be prepared either. It was the same in L.A. [Los Angeles, 1989], it was the same in Kobe [Japan, 1995]," says Mr. Anderson. He has served 12 years in the independent International Rescue Corps. It's unpaid work - in fact he pays about $25 each year to be a member. He's run relief supplies to refugees in Africa as well as worked on several earthquakes.

"People always say the government is doing a bad job, but it takes a long time to get organized," he says.

However, the chaos in Armenia has also had characteristics of a country riven by crime, civil war, and distrust of government. Survivors, desperate for food, have been breaking into downtown stores and taking everything. On Friday they even stormed the Red Cross warehouse, convinced that aid inside wasn't going to be distributed.

"They've sent help from all over the world. We see the food on TV, but where is it?" asks Luis Alberto Espaa, whose house collapsed in the barrio (district) of Telarmenia. He's been living in the street.

But it doesn't appear to be all necessity - some of the cleaned-out stores were full of shoes, appliances, or hardware. Mr. Espaa says there are armed groups of thieves roving a lawless city - especially at night when most of the city is blacked out.

The area has been militarized, and soldiers have been using tear gas and even firing live rounds into the air.

"They were shooting near here a few minutes ago, but you just try to concentrate on your work," says Jos Naviera, one of 36 Caracas, Venezuela, firemen, sitting on a curb next to several Japanese rescue workers. He worked on a deadly quake in 1997 in his hometown of Cumana.

Not all the workers are so nonchalant about the riots. A few blocks away the safety brigade from the Colombian city of Cali is trying to decide where they should start digging next.

"We're trying to work, but the crime won't let us. The problem isn't the tragedy, it's the bullets," says Diego Martnez, part of the team that came up last Monday night right after the quake. In the first day or two, they saved two girls - one only three years old - from fallen buildings. Heavy concrete structures are the most deadly. Some of the cheaper houses, which fell quickly, left more survivors.

"Thank God my house was made of wood," says Oviedo Garca whose barrio, Gaitan Alto, was flattened. Mr. Garca has worked 33 years in construction, and had quakes in mind when he built his own home.

"My father told me never to build with heavy materials. He said you never know when this is all going to move," says Garca.

A central committee is directing the rescue efforts and has divided the city into three zones.

"I'm not sure what zone we're in right now," says Simon Gillam from Hampshire, England. He and his team are using nimble collies to sniff around this site.

Mr. Gillam says that the record for finding a survivor after a quake was 74 days in the Philippines. That was an extremely fortunate case, he says.

"But you can still hope we'll find another survivor even in a week's time," says Gilliam.

Roman Bas, a Miami firefighter from Florida, says the most fatal problem in Armenia may have been that the quake made victims of 15 of the city's firefighters and 17 police.

"They pulled out a lot of survivors in the first day, but in Armenia there was no one to do it," he says.

Firefighters from Florida

Mr. Bas and the 62 Florida volunteers worked on the Oklahoma City bombing as well as a gas explosion in Puerto Rico two years ago. Even though the team didn't pull out any survivors this trip, Bas says he is satisfied with their work.

"I know we were able to bring closure to several people," says Bas, recalling one man who was looking on as his wife's body was extricated. "He was in tears," says Bas. "but he still said how much he appreciated our work."

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