Death Toll From El Salvador Quake Nears 700

Although 682 people had already lost their lives to this weekend's earthquake, it was the 683rd death that brought the sense of tragedy home to the shocked people of El Salvador.

Sergio Moreno, a 22-year-old musician who was pulled alive from the rubble after spending 31 hours entombed under cinderblocks and dirt, died late Tuesday at a hospital.

His near-miraculous rescue had captured Salvadorans, providing a ray of hope amid the despair. After calling for help from beneath the rubble with a cellular phone, rescuers worked more than two days to free him. But his heart and kidneys failed shortly after he was rescued. Doctors revived him and later amputated his legs, but were unable to save him.

Local television stations broke away from regular programming to report his death.

A Ravaged Countryside

Even as signs emerged that everyday life was returning after the earthquake — lines snaked around the block at newly reopened banks in the capital — the isolated countryside largely stood still in hunger and mourning.

In Las Colinas today, a neighborhood near San Salvador that was buried by a landslide, a few crews looked for bodies. But they worked more slowly, the sense of urgency gone with the hope of finding survivors.

Meanwhile, a magnitude-5 earthquake rattled nearby Nicaragua at about 1 a.m. today, sending residents of the capital, Managua, running into the streets. The quake cracked walls and shook buildings slightly, but no deaths or injuries were reported.

The death toll stood at 683 in El Salvador and six more in neighboring Guatemala. More than 2,500 people were injured and nearly 45,000 others were evacuated.

In many places, authorities were overwhelmed by the sheer number of bodies. Many were buried in a long pit at the municipal cemetery in Santa Tecla, the town where Las Colinas is located.

Marcela Pena, 31, remained at the spot where her house once stood, looking for her 14-year-old daughter Betrisia. She said she has been at the morgue and the cemetery to look for her, but hasn't found her.

"I see the bodies and I am sad," she said today. "But there are too many bodies to be sad. I have grown accustomed to death."

Many Salvadorans living in the United States began arriving on flights today after days of desperation trying to get home. In San Salvador, people waited for hours to withdraw cash at newly reopened banks, bottled water was snatched off of shelves and several restaurants and businesses opened their doors offering scaled-back services.

Just God and the Helicopters

Much of the countryside appeared further from recovery.

In Comasagua, a city 17 miles west of the capital where more than 140 people were killed and roads were rendered impassable by landslides, hungry residents swarmed around U.S. Army helicopters bringing food, water and medicine.

"All we have is God and the helicopter that brings food," said housewife Fidelia Guardao.

Virtually all businesses remained shut in Armenia, a working-class town of 30,000 people 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the capital where 124 people died.

Truckloads of fruit began rumbling into town, allowing the outdoor central market to sell limited amounts of food. There will be no meat here for some time, however, because the local slaughterhouse collapsed in the quake, killing a watchman and a pen full of scrawny cows.

Electricity has been restored, but the only water to be found came from dusty puddles in the middle of buckled streets.

Futile Efforts

Jose Vallentin and nine other men from the dirt-poor neighborhood of San Antonio set out walking along the highway Tuesday in search of food and drinking water. The subsistence apple farmer had heard rumors there were aid trucks distributing supplies on a highway shoulder 10 miles (16 kilometers) away.

The rumors were true, but the mammoth Red Cross truck pulled away just as the group was arriving. All the food was gone, they were told. They were given three Gatorade bottles filled with purified water. Vallentin's share was about a quarter of a bottle.

When they returned home, a group of volunteers in a rusty yellow pickup was handing out plastic plates heaping with black beans and tortillas. Vallentin's wife, Rosa, had braved a two-hour line to bring him a plate of food.

Vallentin walked into what was left of his home — a mountain of smashed roofing tile flanked by two sloping brick walls. His daughter, 7-year-old Veronica, was sitting on the cardboard box that now doubles as her bed.

She had trouble opening the bottle's lid. He helped her open it and watched as she took a long drink. When she finished all the water was gone.

"Today we eat," Vallentin said, smiling at Rosa. "We can find something to drink tomorrow.