Chile's government conceded it made a mistake in initially playing down the risk of a tsunami from Saturday's massive earthquake. At a news conference in Santiago, Defence minister Francisco Vidal blamed the navy for what he called a diagnostic error.
Chile's earthquake death toll has passed 700 as rescuers scramble to get to the worst-hit areas in the central and southern parts of the country. On Saturday, the tsunami surge smashed homes still standing after the 8.8 magnitude quake and a tsunami warning was announced in several Pacific countries.
Most of the dead were killed in areas where officials had urged inhabitants not to be worried. Reports say about 350 people died in the small coastal town of Constitucion. The city of Talcahuano also suffered as well as Juan Fernandez island (or Robinson Crusoe island), where half the main town was under water. Six people died and eleven are missing in the island.
The only thing we had time to do was grab the children and run uphill, one man living near the coast said. If it wasn't for that hill, we would have been taken away.
Immediately after the quake struck, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet tried to tamp down tsunami fears and issued a call for calm.
Chilean officials later revised their assessment and activated the tsunami alert, which Mr Vidal said saved not hundreds but thousands of lives as residents fled the shorelines for higher ground.
“What was seen along the coast between regions VI and IX was in effect a seaquake; it’s a seaquake here and in any other part of the world. And there was a mistake” from one of the Navy’s offices.
Nevertheless “fortunately there’s a permanent assessment of sea levels and the system activates in coordination with port authorities, coast guard and other organizations. So in spite of the original forecast, people were informed and could take to safety in the hills”, said Vidal.
“I believe that the quick response and deployment from the Armed Forces contributed to lessen the impact of the catastrophe”, he added.