In the streets of the Ecuadorian city of Portoviejo there is the smell of decomposing bodies, and of burning. People are begging desperately for water, food and blankets. Nobody sleeps at home, not even those whose houses are still standing. “We are afraid that the earth will quake again,” said a tearful Father Walter Coronel, amissionary in based in the Archdiocese of Portoviejo.
San Gregorio de Portoviejo, eleven o’clock in the morning. The thermometer shows 33 degrees, that’s winter in the capital of Manabi Province. A few days before the earthquake it had rained non-stop for 12 hours. Hundreds of people had therefore had to leave their houses. Father Walter rushed there a few days prior to the quake. The missionary, who is currently working in the Ecuadorian Amazon region, comes from Portoviejo.
The priest told his story to international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need: “It was two minutes before the start of the 7 o’clock Mass on Saturday (April 17). The priest, Roberto Carlos Garviami, was just introducing me to the 100 faithful who had come to the church of San José de Picoaza when the ground began to shake.
“The earthquake was very, very strong. Suddenly a large part of the roof fell a few inches from me and buried Father Roberto Carlos. In a few seconds, fear, blood and cries had spread through the parish church. I embraced two strangers. I could only pray and ask God that it would stop as soon as possible.”
Nobody was killed in the church of San José de Picoaza. But in other churches of the archdiocese and in the cathedral of Portoviejo many people lost their lives.
The 7.9 earthquake, with its epicentre 100 miles from Portoviejo, caused buildings to collapse as though they were made of paper. There was nowhere where it was possible to celebrate Holy Mass, the Ecuadorian priest explained. The few parish churches which had not been completely destroyed were heavily damaged.
“Whenever another victim is found, we celebrate the rites of the dead in the street, in corners of destroyed buildings,” said Father Coronel, adding: “It is not possible to count the number of dead. This is because in the hills whole rural areas are buried under rocks and trees. Nobody has been able to get there yet. We know nothing about the rural population. Nobody has managed to reach them yet. We’re completely out of our depth.”
In the city, he said, “the bodies are beginning to decompose. We have no water and the power is being continually cut off. Our country is not prepared for this.”
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN) www.acnmalta.org (Malta)