Aliens in Quito
It was the 12th of February 1949, a Saturday evening, and most of the citizens of Quito, back then a city of a quarter-million people, were in their homes, their radios turned on to Radio Quito. A concert was broadcast.
Suddenly, the regular program broke off, and radio announcers spread the news:
“A flying saucer with aliens on board was seen near the Galapagos islands and it was coming closer to the capital. The city of Latacunga was demolished by aliens with their death rays.
A military base was destroyed!
An on-location journalist reported the landing of a UFO in the main square of Cotocollao, north of Quito. The reporter was abruptly gasping for air, as he was covered into a deadly cloud of gas.”
The news were simply overwhelming and not easy to process for most.
A radio drama goes fatally wrong
What sounds a lot like Orson Welles ‘War of the Worlds’, the radio drama that terrorized the US population more than a decade earlier, was exactly that: the Latin American version of ‘War of the Worlds’.
It was a stunt, a hoax, a sensation that took a bad turn, since most listeners believed what they heard and fell in panic.
But the effect of the original US broadcast, and even a Chilean version in 1944, didn’t match the events that Ecuador was about to experience.
In Quito, things turned worse!
Contrary to the other two broadcasts in which people were warned that what they are about to hear is fiction. Leonardo Paez, the producer and a radio personality, dismissed this opportunity after the station’s dramatic director begged him to do so.
Radio actors, impersonating government officials, added to the realism by asking women and children to vacate the city, and men to remain, defend the city and fight the aliens.
Panic overtook Quito!
Women and children took to the streets, trying to leave the city.
Thousands wanted to seek shelter in churches and tried to confess their sins to overwhelmed priests. One priest suggested to a group that people confess aloud in order to grant mass absolution.
Many did as they were told and confessed their sins and debaucheries with family and neighbours listening, thinking that aliens will end it all anyway.
The military was sent to protect the airport, cadets of a military school took battle positions to defend their campus.
Police and firefighters went to Cotocollao trying to defend what’s left.
Radio executives realized that what was meant as elaborate entertainment, went too far.
They stopped the program and announced that it was all science fiction, a hoax, that no Martians were invading Ecuador, and that Quito was safe! The people didn’t take it too well.
They were outraged because of the announcement. A mob moved towards the building of the ‘El Comercio’ newspaper, where Radio Quito was also located.
Rocks were thrown! Some set the building ablaze, disregarding that over a hundred employees were still inside. The oils from the printing press made the fires rage rapidly.
Some tried to jump over to nearby houses to rescue themselves. Others committed suicide out of fear.
And since most emergency services were still outside of the capital ‘fighting’ aliens, the mob was able to destroy the entire building.
Eventually, the military arrived and tried to disperse the people with tear gas to let the firefighters do their work, but the harm and damage had already been done. They were only able to help and take care of all the injured people lying in the streets from the riots.
In the end, only a concrete skeleton of the building remained.
Several people died that night. The numbers published by newspapers are unclear. They vary between six and twenty casualties. The radio stations’ pianist and violin player and the girlfriend of one of the producers.
The material damage exceeded the sum insured by four times.
Ecuador launched an inquiry after the events of that fateful night.
The three people responsible for the broadcast went into hiding, one of them went to Mexico into exile.
No one was ever held accountable.
Radio Quito was off the air for two years. Eventually resumed broadcasting in 1951.