When the Martians Invaded Ecuador

Remember the notorious "War of the Worlds" broadcast of 1938 ?   Sure you do.

Though Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air only intended the broadcast as a dramatization  of H.G. Wells' classic novel, many listeners believed what they were hearing was real.   Still, despite numerous stories about the panic that followed, the aftermath was rather mild as people simply moved on with their lives.

But there was another broadcast that occurred years later that would lead to one of the most remarkable panics in modern history.  Not to mention one of the deadliest.

It began on February 14, 1949 on a Saturday evening in Quito, Ecuador.  At that time, Quito was a modest sized city with a population of 175,000,  not to mention the ones living in surrounding areas, all of whom depended on Radio Quito for news about the outside world.  So when the regular music program was suddenly interrupted by a Spanish announcer saying , "Here is an urgent piece of late news,"  people stopped to listen.   After hearing that an American observatory had noted strange objects hurtling toward the Earth, the music began again only to be interrupted by an announcement that objects had been sighted over the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.   When then followed was a realistic description of a mysterious enemy that was approaching Quito after destroying military bases and towns just outside the city.    

It was a very realistic-sounding broadcast including simulated interviews with government leaders, scientists, and journalists, all of whom relayed the terror they felt over what was happening.   A voice claiming to be the government Minister instructed citizens to be calm "in order to be able to organize the defense and evacuation of the city."  Listeners could then hear someone (apparently a priest) begging for divine mercy and then a recording of the church bells of Quito sounding an alarm.  Then came the high point of the broadcast as the announcer, who claimed to be broadcasting from the tallest building in Quito, reported seeing a monster "approaching from the north engulfed in fire and smoke."  

According to one journalist, listening to the program "drove most of the population of Quito into the streets" in an attempt to escape the horrors of  what was being described in the program.  If there was a notice at the beginning of the program warning that the events were fictional, most people either hadn't heard or simply ignored it.  Since World War 2 had ended just a few years before, the memory of radio broadcasts describing aerial bombings of distant cities was still fresh in the minds of the average Ecuadoran.   Also, since the original H.G. Wells novel was largely unknown in South America, it's hardly surprising that they would find the concept of a Martian invasion  as being well, alien to them.   While the panic was nationwide, it was most intense in Quito which was described as the epicenter of the invasion.  After being flooded by telephone calls from terrified listeners, station programmers finally realized the impact their broadcast was having.  They interrupted the broadcast and frantically tried to reassure people that it was all fictional.  

Which is when things really went downhill....

Considering the panic it had caused, you can imagine the rage that followed after people learned that the broadcast was fake.  Mobs quickly formed which began marching on the downtown Quito building where the radio station was located.  After showering the building with stones and forcing all the occupants to take refuge on the upper floors, the mob then set multiple fires around the building.   While some of the occupants had managed to escape out the back, more than a hundred people were trapped inside as the fire quickly spread.    A few "human chains" were formed to try lowering people to the ground floor though some ended up falling to their deaths.  

Since many members of the police force had already been dispatched to distant parts of the city to quell the "invasion", it took time to mobilize a response to rescue the people trapped inside the building.  It took an armed response, complete with tanks and tear gas, to disperse the mob enough to allow firefighters to reach the burning building.   By then the fire had spread to other buildings, including a government communications building.  Though the blaze was eventually brought under control, only the front of the radio station building was left standing.   At least twenty people died and another fifty people, including security guards and firefighters, were injured.   Damages to the station were an estimated $350,000.

In the investigation that followed, two men were quickly singled out for blame:   Leonard Paez who was director of art at the station and Eduardo Alcaras, the station's dramatic director.  Both men had been inside the building when the riot broke out and only barely managed to escape death.  Paez had even gone so far as to wrap his body in newsprint and leaped out of a window to land on several people in the street.   Though this broke his fall, he still sustained serious injuries.   His girlfriend and nephew had been among the casualties.

The station heads insisted that they had no prior knowledge of what the two men were planning and insisted that they were solely responsible for what happened.    They also issued a statement saying that the mob had been organized by "enemies of the radio and newspapers."   Despite being offered two sacrificial lambs, investigators arrested an additional ten suspects and began searching for more.  In the meantime, a government investigator was appointed to look into the rioting and sixteen people were eventually arrested for their role in the rioting.  No word on how long it took for the radio station to resume broadcasting though Leonard Paez later moved to Venezuela.  

Ironically enough, the people of Quito likely found the experience educational considering a very real earthquake struck central Ecuador just months later.  With nearly five thousand dead and thousands more left injured and homeless, the real-life disaster ensured that the strange panic of February 14 was quickly forgotten.   Still, the Invasion Panic of 1949 represents a graphic example of the power that media can have in spreading disinformation and the very real consequences that can follow.   Whether something of that nature could happen again in an era of Internet news and cable television remains to be seen. 


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