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Tsunami victims file suit for involuntary manslaughter

This week, the families of victims of the tsunami after February’s earthquake filed suit for involuntary manslaughter against whoever is responsible for not alerting the population about the tidal waves responsible for most of the over 500 officially recognized deaths.

The first lawsuit was filed on Wednesday for the death of sisters Eliana and Nancy Lema, both in their fifties, were vacationing in Dichato, a small coastal village in the Bio Bio region, epicenter of the 8.8 magnitude earthquake. The women were planning on returning home to Santiago on February 27, but the earthquake at 3:34 a.m. that day changed everything.

“I’m doing this in memory of my wife, my sister in law and all of the victims that came down from the hills after learning that the government had dismissed a tsunami alert. The authorities are responsible for their deaths,” said Hugo Fuentealba, Eliana’s husband.

Interviewed by the daily La Tercera, Fuentealba said that as soon as the earthquake was over, his family quickly got dressed and evacuated towards the hills, realizing that a tsunami could be on its way. Once there, Fuentealba turned on a battery-operated radio and heard a Chilean television report in which President Michelle Bachelet was announcing that there was no tsunami anywhere along the Chilean coast. It was 5:40 a.m., Fuentealba said.

“I told my wife that we could go back down because there wasn’t going to be a tsunami. We left the car about 70 meters from the house and I went in the house to see in what conditions it was. Then I heard the car honking and all of a sudden, the sea was devastating everything. The water overtook me and I hung on to a tree. When the water subsided, I saw my wife in the car, dead. My sister in law was 200 meters away, also dead… If the President had said there would be a tsunami, we wouldn’t have gone back down,” Fuentealba said to La Tercera.

On Thursday, three more families filed similar lawsuits. One was presented by the son of a 77-year old woman in Constitucion, a coastal town obliterated by the tsunami, and the others by relatives of two victims in Llo-Lleo, a beach town about 60 miles from Santiago. The two victims had fled to the town plaza after the earthquake but returned to their homes on the seafront after hearing of no tsunami alert.

This week, the National Prosecutor’s office ordered an investigation into any possible negligence committed by the Navy’s Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service (SHOA) and the governmental National Emergency Bureau (ONEMI) for not alerting the population of the imminent tsunami.

Who acted when and how in the hours that followed the earthquake at 3.34 a.m. on February 27 is still very confusing and contradictory.

The Navy asserts that it has proof that SHOA did inform the government in time, sending a tsunami alert to ONEMI 17 minutes after the earthquake and another one 15 minutes later.

However, government versions say that SHOA cancelled a tsunami alert at 4:56 a.m. on February 17, more than an hour and 20 minutes after the earthquake, and half an hour later, sent President Bachelet a note stating: “The epicenter is inland, so there shouldn’t be any tsunami”.

But three tidal waves struck the coast between 5 and 6 a.m., as the SHOA later confirmed.

Another confusing episode is a fax supposedly sent by a SHOA officer to the ONEMI warning of a possible tsunami, which ONEMI ignored because the fax, they say, was “illegible”.

Almost a week later, the Navy discharged SHOA director Mariano Rojas and announced an internal investigation into the procedures the night of the earthquake.

The Director of ONEMI, Carmen Fernandez, resigned days later, accusing the media of her downfall for its repeated criticism that her agency was slow in reacting to the emergency and had failed to warn the population of the tsunami.