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Chilean fisherman faced tsunami to save others

By Karl Penhaul, CNN
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Fishermen died saving lives
  • Pedro Munoz was camping on island in river when earthquake struck
  • He made two trips in his boat to save at least 20 people
  • "He said, if he didn't make it, then that's God's will," widow says
  • Chile
  • Tsunamis
  • Earthquakes

Constitucion, Chile (CNN) -- The only thing that seemed to frighten Pedro Munoz that dark morning was that a guilty conscience would haunt him if he did nothing.

He'd been a fisherman all his life and was familiar with the fury of the sea. Still, he chose to sail into the oncoming tsunami, sacrificing his own life so others could live.

Tabita Bravo sits on a riverbank, perching on the side of a 15-foot wooden boat like her husband's. It's a struggle to hear her small voice above the sound of waves rolling over the pebbles.

"My husband always said to me that if God took him before his time, that he hoped it would be doing something for his town and his people," Bravo said.

Bravo had been camping with her 54-year-old husband, her 20-year-old son, Luis Anabalon, and family friend Juan Padilla on an island in the River Maule. The island is a few hundred yards from the ocean and closer still to the town of Constitucion.

It was a tradition here to camp out on the island in the closing days of the Southern Hemisphere's summer. The family was asleep, and scores more were camping nearby when they were awakened by the massive quake about 3.30 a.m. local time February 27.

Munoz took one look as the river began to rapidly ebb and knew that a tsunami was on its way.

"Pedro and my son dragged the boat down to the water line and shouted 'Women and children first!' I ran to get everybody together. But the boat was too small, and there was not enough space for everybody," Bravo explained.

Bravo refused a spot on the first boat. She, her son and Padilla helped load four women and their six young children aboard. A first wave came rolling in, and Munoz ferried the first group out of harm's way. He shouted that he would be back.

Just before the second wave hit, Munoz sailed the 400-yard round trip and departed the island a second time, taking his wife and nine others. His stepson and friend stayed behind to organize the others still stranded. Time was running out as the tsunami waters rose.

"As I looked back, I heard screams and laments," Bravo said. "I shouted to my son Luis to run to the trees and climb up. He shouted back, 'I'm OK, Mum. Never forget I love you. I love you.' "

Witnesses say Munoz saved at least 20 people in two trips. His wife begged him not to go back and instead head for higher ground.

But a neighbor appeared and begged Munoz to make a third and final trip.

"He said, don't worry, he'd be back. But he said, if he didn't make it, then that's God's will," Bravo said. "He said if he didn't try to rescue more people, then he'd always have it on his conscience."

Those were Munoz's last words to his wife. She waited for him by a bridge until the water levels forced her to flee to high ground.

"I heard the third wave coming and destroying everything in its path. I heard ships' moorings snap. I ran up the hill, and when I looked back, I realized Pedro, Luis and Juan were gone. I knew I'd never see them again." Bravo said.

Inhabitants of Constitucion found Munoz's body six days later. He had been dragged 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) into the thick forests that line the banks of the River Maule.

Debris and bits of houses litter the forests. Three fishing boats, each about 70 tons, lie battered and beached there, too.

A short bit away, the digging arm of a bright yellow backhoe can be seen jutting out of the water. On the opposite side of the river, the back of a cement truck rises just above the water level.

If the tsunami has destroyed those objects, each weighing many tons, one can't even begin to imagine how Pedro Munoz must have battled to keep his 15-foot skiff on course.

There's no record of the names of the 20 women and children whom witnesses say Munoz saved that morning. Events unfolded too fast, and the situation was too desperate to make a note.

The tsunami has wiped out most of Tabita Bravo's physical reminders of her marriage to Munoz, too. She clutches just three damp photos she rescued from the sludge. But she will never forget.

"I always knew Pedro was a hero. Now, the memories are in my heart," she said.

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