Two earthquakes of 7 and 5.9 degrees of magnitude on the Ritcher scale shook Chile on Saturday, just thirty minutes apart, at Antarctica and in the center of Chile, with Chilean authorities calling to evacuate the coastal areas due to the risk of a tsunami, as a consequence of confusing alert messages.
The National Emergency Office, ONEMI said that the first earthquake took place around 8:36 PM local time (23:36 GMT), 210 kilometers east of the Base Eduardo Frei, which supports Antarctic scientific research and from where some 80 people were evacuated. Another forty people were also removed from the Bernardo O'Higgins Base managed by the Chilean navy, as well as personnel from other nearby foreign bases. But so far no damage has been reported.
Following this first alert residents in continental Chile received a message on their mobile phones requesting they evacuate all beaches due to risk of tsunami, and there were several panic scenes recorded throughout the country, in full summer and with thousands on vacation in coastal areas.
Local channels broadcast images of entire families fleeing the beaches and climbing the hills, as well as citizens crowding into gas stations to fill up tanks.
But ONEMI later clarified that the alert was a digitization error and that the evacuation referred only to the Antarctic territory.
Attention, we reiterate that no evacuation has been declared for the coastline at national level, only for the beach area of the Antarctic territory, repeated ONEMI on Twitter. The office depends from Chile's Home Secretary.
However only thirty minutes after the seism in Antarctica, a new tremor of 5,9 degrees of magnitude, 122,4 kilometers deep, shook the central area of the country at (00:07 GMT), some fourteen kilometers east of Farellones, central Chile.
The earthquake did not cause damage or victims but was felt specially in the capital Santiago, where hundreds of people left their homes, also deeply confused by the erroneous alert message from ONEMI.
ONEMI head Ricardo Toro was forced to try and explain what had happened given the pre-panic situation and comments from seismic experts which called it a grave mistake.
Toro insisted it was a specific problem because of a duplicity of codes from the Global System platform which alerts the population on seismic activity. In this case the Antarctica and Tarapacá codes overlapped which resulted in alert messages to both places, despite the fact that it should have gone only to Antarctica following the 7 degrees tremor
The current situation of the platform is for the company to certify it remains operational and can overcome such duplicity of messages. I consider it a trustworthy system which has been working efficiently for seven years, in over fifty opportunities, insisted Toro.
Nevertheless an administrative inquiry to determine possible failures, plus a technical and contractual audit to establish the company's responsibilities, based on the clauses of the contract and possible contemplated fines.
Chile lies in the so called Pacific Ring of Fire, and is considered one of countries most prone to seismic activity, the last of which in 2010, with an 8,8 Ritcher magnitude causing the death of 525 people and considerable damage.