An 8.3-magnitude earthquake centered in south central Chile leaves 50,000 people dead and 60,000 injured on this day in 1939. The disaster came just 33 years after another terrible quake in Chile killed tens of thousands.
Earthquakes in Chile are relatively common as virtually the entire country lies along an underground fault. Since consistent records have been kept, the country averages a significant tremor every three years. Typically, there is a pattern of foreshocks over several weeks that lead to a large earthquake. In January 1939, that pattern did not hold.
One theory is that a sudden change in the barometric pressure on that day accelerated the cycle.
The epicenter of the massive quake was in south central Chile near the city of Chillan. The entire community was leveled, as the construction of homes and public buildings was not nearly strong enough to prevent their collapse. Approximately 10,000 of Chillan’s 40,000 residents died when they were crushed by falling buildings. The town of Concepcion was also struck hard.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, President Pedro Aguirre Cerda declared martial law and sent in the Chilean military to establish order. The Red Cross also played an important role in the relief efforts, and a mild winter made the delivery of assistance and supplies to the region relatively easy.
Although Chillan and Concepcion had previously been moved following quakes in years past, this time they were rebuilt in their existing locations, with more stringent safety and building codes in place to help protect residents from future earthquakes.