March 3, 2010 / 7:09 PM / 9 years ago

Lucky escape for non-swimmer swept away on Chile wave

CONSTITUCION, Chile (Reuters) - Bernardita Vives woke up to hell Saturday morning as Chile’s huge earthquake sent bricks from her beach house tumbling down on her, breaking her right leg.

Tsunami survivor Bernardita Vives Cornejo gives an interview to Reuters as she receives treatment in a field hospital erected after a major earthquake and ensuing tsunami in Talca, March 3, 2010. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

That was the beginning of her troubles.

As her neighbors ran for the hills surrounding the picturesque coastal town of Constitucion, Vives was trapped by her shattered leg and could only cry for help as mountainous tsunami waves rolled in and swept her away.

The 43-year-old non-swimmer survived after being washed up on a hill far from the ruins of her house.

“I survived because I just went with the wave, I counted my blessings and went. I was calm because I thought I was going to die,” said Vives from her hospital bed.

Her ordeal left her with a broken collar bone, bruises and a large bloody scab on her right arm as well as a broken femur.

“At one point I grabbed onto power cables and that worked for a while until I felt myself being dragged under. Then I really thought it was over.”

At least 350 people were killed in Constitucion by the 8.8-magnitude earthquake and the tsunami it triggered, and rescue officials say up to 500 people could still be missing here.

Officials say Vives, who described the wave as taller than her, is so far the only confirmed survivor among those who were swept up in the raging wall of water.

Four days after the disaster that killed a total of around 800 people in central Chile, rescue teams scouring badly hit coastal areas still hope to find more survivors like Vives, but are increasingly using their search dogs to find bodies.

“This is the only patient we have here from Constitucion. She was taken away by the wave,” said Dr. Gustavo Cardenas at the army’s field hospital in nearby Talca where the military is running its aid effort for the region.

Constitucion was full of tourists attending an annual party marking the end of summer when the ground started shaking.

Vives, a seller of handicrafts who has curly brown hair and crooked teeth, said she grabbed for floating debris in the wave only to be repeatedly pinned down under crushing water.

She said she did not know how long she was in the wave and may have lost consciousness.

“I had hypothermia when they found me the next morning. I was crying for help up on a hill ... way up the river,” said Vives, whose surname happens to mean “you live” in English.

“It is amazing to be alive,” she said. “If I survived, it must be because I have something to do.”

Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Frances Kerry

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