by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
June 24, 2001
AREQUIPA, Peru, June 24, 2001 -- One of the most powerful earthquakes ever to hit the Western Hemisphere struck the "white city" of Arequipa, Peru, on Saturday afternoon, terrifying residents who felt the entire city shake and watched a tower on one the nation's oldest cathedrals crumble to the ground. At least 47 people died and many hundreds more were injured.
"I felt a movement of the earth and I saw the tower of one of the churches fall and a huge cloud of dust arise. I could hardly breathe. The people began to cry and pray to God that it would stop," said Dr. Eduardo Luna, the son of Mireya Shea, wife of this reporter, when reached by phone around 1 a.m. (PST) Sunday morning, or 4 a.m. local time.
"We have felt more than 30 aftershocks since the first quake," Dr.Luna said. The young physician said people were sleeping in the streetsas the tremors continued throughout the night.
It is midwinter in Peru, and the city 7,670 feet above sea level. President Valentin Paniagua was said to be enroute with 22 tons of food, blankets and medicine, and newly-elected President Alejandro Toledo, who takes office July 28, canceled a planned trip to the United States to fly to Arequipa today.
The earthquake's epicenter was about 16 miles south of the colonial city of Arequipa, founded in 1540, where hundreds of houses fell and many others were damaged.
Dr. Luna said his family's home suffered a broken window but little else.
"We were lucky that we didn't suffer worse," Dr. Luna said. He was half a block from the Plaza de Armas, in the center of the city when the earthquake struck.
Among the most severe casualties of the quake were hundreds of homes of traditional adobe construction, reports from the region and Dr. Luna said.
Arequipa, whose population today is near 1 million, was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1600, and the 1656 cathedral so badly damaged Saturday was rebuilt after it was destroyed by a quake in 1868. Major earthquakes struck in 1687, 1868, 1958 and 1960, but none were as strong as Saturday's.
Mireya Shea assisted in research for this story.