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Shocking scenes hours after quake

By Brian Byrnes, CNN
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The road to Concepcion, Chile
  • Brian Byrnes took harrowing trip from Argentina to Chile after quake
  • In Santiago, victims camped in tents in front of roaring fires
  • People flee through streets, scavenge for basics in Concepción
  • Chile
  • Earthquakes

Editor's note: Brian Byrnes was the first CNN reporter to reach Concepción, the Chilean city at the epicenter of the quake. Here's his firsthand account of his journey to get to the quake zone.

Buenos Aires, Argentina (CNN) -- An 8.8-magnitude quake hit south central Chile on Saturday morning, and tremors rattled cities as far away as Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I live.

I immediately started making plans to get into Chile. It wouldn't be easy. With Santiago airport closed, my quickest bet would be to fly from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, the wine-growing city in western Argentina that lies 180 kilometers east of Santiago.

That option would require an overnight odyssey, crossing the rugged Andes Mountains on a high-altitude road full of switchbacks.

A few hours later, I was on a plane, and by midnight I had made my way through the Cristo Redentor tunnel and to the border crossing at 3,500 meters.

The air was cold, and the road was curvy, but fortunately a full moon helped guide our way, and at 2 a.m. Sunday -- less than 24 hours after the quake -- cameraman Juan Pablo Lanciotti and I were in Santiago, where people were camping in tents in front of roaring fires.

Overpasses had collapsed, and it was nearly impossible to drive on certain sections of road. In the posh neighborhood of Providencia, the steeple of a 120-year-old church was tethered precariously over a main thoroughfare.

At dawn, we headed south toward the epicenter in Concepción. Along the Pan-American Highway (Route 5), much of the pavement was cracked, with a deep, fault-line crevice.

We had to take detours onto rural routes and into small villages. In a town called Hospital, I saw scores of one-story adobe homes that had been flattened like pancakes.

One woman grabbed me to show me the damage to her neighbor's home, saying the family had fled on foot and had not been seen since. Two nuns were searching unsuccessfully for water at a small market.

At Rio Claro in the Maule region, a huge section of the Route 5 bridge had crashed into the water below.

An overturned passenger bus sat on the side of the highway, close to mangled power lines. A three-story metal silo looked like a crushed beer can. Lines at roadside gas stations stretched for half a mile.

We passed a funeral procession; the battered hearse glided cautiously over the damaged road.

About four hours from our destination, our two-car convoy became one when the engine of our van seized up.

We abandoned it and packed all our gear and five tired, sweaty, anxious men into a small sedan for the final stretch into Concepción.

When we arrived about 8 p.m., what I saw truly shocked me.

Thousands of people were running in the streets, looting stores and scavenging for water in a dirty public fountain.

Buildings, homes and businesses had been destroyed by the quake. At gas stations, people were dipping long tubes into tanks below, siphoning fuel to power their cars, water pumps and generators.

Dusk was setting, and the 9 p.m. curfew was just minutes away. It was clear the authorities had zero control over the city.

I was anxious to get on the air to report all that I had seen. In the 7 p.m. ET hour Sunday, I went live on CNN International and did my best to describe the destruction. Throughout the night and into the morning and the following afternoon, I reported for CNN U.S., CNN International and CNN affiliate stations.

Early Monday, other CNN crews began showing up, all of whom had had long and difficult journeys to Concepción.

Everyone looked ragged, but they soon set out to tell the story of the earthquake's devastation, traveling to neighborhoods in Concepción and to coastal villages wiped out by the ensuing tsunamis.

In downtown Concepción, the street fronting the destroyed Rio Alto building -- a 15-story apartment building that collapsed with more than 100 people inside -- turned into a makeshift media center.

Here, reporters lived like residents: without electricity, running water or heat. It has been a challenging assignment for all.

Many media outlets have tried comparing Chile's earthquake to the one that occurred in Haiti the month before. I don't think this is necessary or fair. Each tragedy deserves its own reporting, analysis and response.