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Chile earthquake sparks family fears

MIDDLEBURY — Early on Saturday morning, the second large earthquake to rock the Western Hemisphere in as many months hit just off the coast of Chile.
Here in Middlebury, the time was 1:34 a.m. For some, the remainder of the night became sleepless.
“I got a phone call on Saturday morning at 4 a.m.,” said Jeff Cason, the Dean of International Studies at Middlebury College.
The phone call was from the director of the college’s Chile study abroad program with good news. The students had all been together in Santiago for their orientation program. The earthquake was strong, even 200 miles from the epicenter, but everyone involved with the program was in a modern hotel building that suffered only minor damage from the tremors.
“We knew right away that they were all safe,” Cason said.
But that wasn’t the end of the work. The orientation program had begun the day before, on Feb. 26. On the 28th, students had been scheduled to travel to the program sites, spread out across the country. Both in-country and out, Saturday was spent contacting the students’ families, back at their homes to assure them that everyone in Chile was fine, and the host families in country to make sure that no one was hurt.
Two of the students in the program had been scheduled to study at the Universidad de Concepción, just 70 miles from the quake’s epicenter. They had to be relocated: Chile’s second-largest city was among the hardest hit in Saturday’s earthquake. The students will instead study in La Serena, several hundred miles up the coast from Concepción.
According to Cason, all of the Chilean universities where program participants will be studying are operating normally, and the rented Santiago office space that serves as the headquarters for Middlebury’s program in Chile was virtually undamaged.
“There were some bookcases knocked down, but no massive damage,” said Cason.
Colin Hoefle, a 2009 Middlebury Union High School graduate, was also in Chile at the time of the earthquake. Hoefle had deferred from the University of Colorado at Boulder for a year to spend time in Chile. He is currently completing a Teaching English as a Foreign Language certification course, and will spend the next several months teaching the language.
He and a visiting friend, Cooper Quenneville, also a 2009 MUHS graduate, were far up the Chilean coast in Viña del Mar at the time of the earthquake.
For Colin’s family, Saturday was a tense day.
“They felt the quake but didn’t have any information about how bad it was,” said Vicki Hoefle, Colin’s mother. “We didn’t hear from them until around eight that night.”
Luckily, the tremors were minimal in Viña del Mar.
“They’re both fine,” said Vicki Hoefle.
At press time, the Chilean government estimated that the earthquake had caused 799 deaths in the country — a fraction of the 230,000 estimated deaths in the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. Much of the destruction and many of the deaths were caused by tsunamis trigged by the earthquake’s offshore epicenter.
Still, many areas of the country, especially the more rural ones, are anticipating a long period of rebuilding before they can return to normalcy. And those in areas that rode out the earthquake with less damage are breathing sighs of relief.
“No one is sure of the level of damage,” said Cason. “But we were lucky.”
Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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