SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — “We've dug out two rooms … now we're moving onto clearing the garage. They must be somewhere in there,” said Oscar Flores, who had spent two days helping emergency workers dig in search of an old school friend and his family.

But like an increasing number of people, Flores admitted that he is slowly accepting the fate of his friends.

“I want to make this effort, so that afterward no one can say that I didn't at least try to find their bodies,” he said.

Relief efforts intensified as aftershocks continued to rattle El Salvador in the week following the devastating earthquake that struck the Central American country Jan. 13.

The epicenter of the quake, which registered 7.6 on the open-ended Richter scale, was in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of El Salvador. Buildings shook as far north as Mexico City, 600 miles away.

Salvadoran President Francisco Flores urged people to remain calm in the wake of repeated aftershocks that measured up to 5.0 on the Richter scale. The president said “normality would soon return” to the disaster-struck country.

At least 682 people, including six in neighboring Guatemala, were believed to have died from quake-related causes, but authorities expected the death toll to rise as search efforts continue. At least 500 people are unaccounted for.

About 2,500 people were injured, and nearly 45,000 people have been left homeless or evacuated from their homes.

The El Salvadorean government reported Jan. 16 that more than 675 bodies had been recovered, almost half of them from the Las Colinas residential neighborhood outside San Salvador, where 400 houses were razed by mud brought down from the surrounding mountains by the quake.

Rescue workers continued shifting through the debris at the site of the Las Colinas tragedy, with search dogs and their Mexican handlers leading efforts to find traces of life. The scenes of desperate digging that marked the first hours after the quake had been replaced by a general air of tense calm at the site.

Elsewhere in the country, half of El Salvador's 6 million inhabitants were without water and a number of villages remained isolated. Among them is Comasagua, 17 miles southeast of San Salvador, where hundreds of peasants awaited rescue after part of a hill collapsed and buried the village.

With the death toll rising, mass burials were conducted in a race against time to prevent the spread of disease from rotting corpses. Health officials warned people not to drink running water for fear it was contaminated.

The Salvadoran government ordered 3,000 coffins from Colombia in anticipation of rising casualties.

The aftershocks kept offices, businesses and schools closed in the hardest-hit areas. More than 100 churches were damaged, as well as a number of Catholic schools.

Meanwhile, the National Commission of Solidarity appealed for tarpaulins and tents, water and other drinks, blankets, lamps, nonperishable foods, batteries, first aid kits, portable toilettes, serum, surgical materials, equipment for orthopedic treatment, and antibiotics.

Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle of San Salvador is personally presiding over the commission, which was organized by the Church for the emergency. Pope John Paul II himself made two appeals for assistance to survivors and reconstruction.

In addition, Catholic Relief Services has committed a total of $250,00 toward earthquake relief.

“Three teams from Catholic Relief Services spent all day Sunday traveling through the departments of La Union, San Miguel and Usulutan,” CRS aide Gino Lofredo said. “We have met with local partners to assess the highest priority needs.”

CRS has sent plastic sheeting, potable water, blankets and basic food supplies, as well as funds, to the dioceses of Santiago de Maria, Zacatecoluca, San Vicente and Sonsonate.

Funds have also been sent to the bishops’ conference and to the diocese of Santa Ana. Relief materials were also sent to the Archdiocese of El Salvador.

“This has been a regional response for Catholic Relief Services,” Lofredo said. “Agency staff from Honduras and Guatemala have come to assist us. In addition, the local Church and Caritas partners are tremendous.” Both Caritas-El Salvador as well as the various Caritas of sister churches mobilized to coordinate the Church's aid.

Many other faith-based aid agencies also galvanized forces to meet the needs of those affected by the earthquake. An international coalition of 200 Protestant and Orthodox churches, Action By Churches Together, had collected $50,000 for relief efforts by Jan. 16, and had given digging tools to communities buried beneath mud.

In Las Colinas, angry residents criticized the lack of government intervention to prevent new construction projects on the edge of the mountain range. Backed by ecologists, they claimed construction undermined the mountains’ stability.

“This disaster could have been avoided, God only knows why,” 64-year-old Tomas Castellano said.

“I can only think of my two little grandchildren who died here,” he added, his eyes welling up with tears.

Ricardo Navarro, an ecologist, said: “We said hundreds of times to the government and the construction industry that the tree line on this hillside should not be destroyed. … But several urbanization projects were born, and there you have the results.”

(From combined wire services)