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War of the Worlds radio broadcast, Quito, Ecuador (1949)

Quito circa 1949

It seems fairly certain that when Orson Welles broadcast his version of The War of the Worlds in 1938, the only real injuries sustained were some bruised egos and perhaps the odd sprained ankle. It has been suggested that the newspapers of the time were keen to talk up the damage and with the passage of time it is all too easy to get carried away and imagine fatalities, but when you think about it calmly and rationally, it hardly seems credible to believe that anyone might lose their life over a fake radio broadcast, yet this is precisely what did happen just a decade later, when an Ecuadorian radio station fashioned their very own lethal version of The War of the Worlds.

The year was 1949, the date February 12th and the place Quito, the Ecuadorian capital city and home at the time to some 250,000 people. It should have been just another routine dramatic broadcast by the city's principle radio station, but by the end of that evening, the local newspaper office (home to the radio station) would be a smouldering ruin and at least six people dead at the hands of an enraged mob. But just how did this horrific tragedy come about'

Leonardo Páez circa 1940

The story begins at Radio Quito when the dramatic director Leonardo Páez was handed the task by the station management of bringing a new drama to life, though the actual idea originated from a Chilean member of staff named Eduardo Alcaraz. Alcaraz (his real name was Alfredo Vergara Morales) had brought with him from Chile a copy of the 1944 War of the Worlds script, an exciting connection to the earlier Latin American broadcast that has been confirmed to me by none other than the daughter of Leonardo Páez. It was Alcaraz who negotiated a contract to produce the play with the station management, but his role in the affair has been eclipsed by that of Páez, whose motivations and aims have been the source of much speculation over the years. Many histories of the event paint him in a highly suspect light; with it commonly claimed that Páez had withheld his intentions from the station management so as to cause the maximum amount of surprise to listeners. Writing in the well regarded book Ponzi Schemes, Invaders from Mars and other extraordinary Popular Delusions, Joseph Bulgatz went further, claiming Páez had planted stories about UFO landings in several newspapers in the days prior to the broadcast, and had even gone so far as to lock the doors to the studio so that the actors would not be disturbed.

Alberto Valencia and Gonzalo Benítez perform at Radio Quito

At 9PM on the night of 12th, listeners were excited to be treated to a special performance by the hugely popular singing duo of Luis Alberto 'Potolo' Valencia and Gonzalo Benítez. In the middle of the song For me your memory, Listeners were suddenly alerted to an urgent piece of news that Martians were reported to have landed some 20 miles from Quito and that the aliens were advancing on the capital in the form of a large cloud. Crowds rushed out into the streets and in the heightened atmosphere of excitement, agitated imaginations transformed ordinary clouds into this ominous object. The airbase of Mariscal Sucre was next to be swept aside by the Martians, along with a north-western parish of Quito near the airport called Cotocallao. The reporter (played by Páez) was then heard to collapse as gas swept his position. Familiar voices (impersonated by actors) added to the panic. The Interior Minister urged calm and the Mayor of Quito was heard to announce "people of Quito, let us defend our city. Our women and children must go out into the surrounding heights to leave the men free for action and combat." A priest was heard asking for divine forgiveness as church bells tolled and then from atop the La Previsora tower (the highest point in Quito) came a terrifying description of a monster engulfed in plumes of fire and smoke that was advancing from the north.

In an uncanny parallel to the 1938 broadcast when listeners thought the invaders were actually Germans, many people in Ecuador thought that neighbouring Peru was the real aggressor. This was an understandable, since there was a great deal of enmity between the two countries due to border disputes. But regardless of whom listeners thought the invaders were, panic was now well and truly engulfing Quito and surrounding areas. Churches opened their doors to the terrified population who were pouring from their homes in their nightclothes and running about the streets in terror. One priest is said to have conducted an open air mass absolution of sins such were the overwhelming number of supplicants wishing to make peace with their God.

At last the station staff realised just what was happening in the streets. A belated admission and plea for calm was broadcast, which is when things got really serious. Up until this moment, no one appears to have been seriously hurt, but now a great many people in Quito were acutely aware they had been fooled, and were looking for something or someone to vent their fury upon. El Comercio, the largest and most respected paper in the country, owned radio Quito and the station was housed in the same building as the newspaper. It was to this location that the mob advanced, and in what might have seemed an ironic act by the crowd, set fire to copies of the El Comercio newspaper and hurled these (and other objects) at the building. The main entrance was blocked and a fire swiftly broke out. Some of the besieged staff of 100 people escaped from a rear exit, but many were trapped on upper floors and were forced in some desperate cases to leap from windows. Others attempted to form human chains to the ground, but many fell. The reported figures for the eventual death toll varies between about 6 and 20, with the former considered the more realistic number, but regardless of the how many died or were injured, it was a clearly a terrifying night with some despicable acts reported. It is said that the mob beat policemen who arrived on the scene and removed fire hydrants in order to thwart efforts to extinguish the blaze.

The El Comercio building on fire

As the building burned, Army units drove tanks through the streets and fired tear gas to disperse the crowds, but help was late coming, as in the most deadly twist of the night, much of the cities emergency services had actually been dispatched to Cotocallao to join the battle against the Martians. Eventually order was restored, but the El Comercio building was severely damaged, with an estimated repair bill of some $350,000 dollars. Alongside the loss of life, much of the equipment for the station and presses for the paper had been destroyed.

In the aftermath, the defence minister was tasked with handling the investigation and over the next few days 21 arrests were made, both of rioters and station staff. Páez and Alcaraz were amongst those indicted, but here is where the story takes a strange and dark twist, much to the discomfort of surviving relatives of Páez. According to the accepted history of this event in the English speaking world, Páez really had planned to create a panic. Not only had he locked the station doors, but he had enjoyed the panic and upset he had caused. Having completed his diabolical mission, it has been dramatically claimed that he was last seen atop the roof of the El Comercio building, before disappearing from the pages of history, a wanted and reviled fugitive.

This certainly does make for an exciting tale, but there is another side to the story that needs to be told, for as revealed to me by his daughter, Páez did not disappear forever that night. Rather, he sensibly laid low for several months until he could present his case to a judge. Having had the good sense to retain a copy of the contract between Alcaraz and the station, he was able to prove conclusively that the station was fully aware of the play and its content, and as such he could not be held accountable for the reaction of the mob. The stories that he had locked the station door, enjoyed the upset caused by the broadcast and planted UFO stories are firmly refuted by his daughter. Páez had no authority to place stories in the El Comercio newspaper, and would never have stooped to this subterfuge even if he could have. He was hoping for some good reviews in the papers the following day, but had never imagined that people would react as they did. So exonerated in a court of law, Páez was free to resume his normal life, working without any stigma for other radio stations and newspapers in Ecuador.

Los que siembran el viento by Leonardo Páez

Six years later he moved to Venezuela where he continued to work in radio and newspapers for several more decades. He passed away in 1991 while still living in Venezuela, leaving behind a highly regarded body of work that included a book about the Quito War of the Worlds broadcast called Los que siembran el viento, (Those that seed the wind) and over 20 popular Ecuadorian songs, including La Tuna Quiteña (The fiesta of Quito), which has become a perennial national favourite. In 1985 he was given the keys to the city of Quito, not the sort of accolade routinely given to a man thought guilty of a monstrous deception and the death of 6 of his compatriots.

Listen to La Tuna Quiteña below, and
enjoy a photo tour of Quito.

This new information from Leonardo Páez's daughter demands that the role of her father needs to be urgently re-examined and that the testimony of others involved in the broadcast, notably Eduardo Alcaraz, (who was the source of many of the accusations against his partner), be revaluated. Clearly, there was a disastrous misjudgement by Radio Quito that night, but as with the original broadcast of 1938, it is easy to imagine that in the excitement of producing such an unusual drama, those involved simply let their enthusiasm blind them to the dangers. They would not be the last to make this mistake.

For more about the Quito War of the Worlds broadcast, see my book, Waging the War of the Worlds: A History of the 1938 Radio Broadcast and Resulting Panic

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