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Cover of El Nacional with the news of the disturbances.
The cover page of El Nacional with news of the disturbances.

The other "War of the Worlds" that sowed tragedy in Ecuador

A decade after Orson Welles' radio experiment, Radio Quito tried to emulate an alien hoax. What happened surpasses fiction.

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In October 1938, legendary film director Orson Welles terrorized the U.S. from the Mercury Theater with a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds, which dramatized a devastating alien invasion that many citizens took seriously. An experiment, it was said, so convincing, despite being warned several times that it was a re-creation, the army had to intervene because of the outbreaks of panic it provoked in citizens.

In February 1949, more than a decade after the broadcast, and with far fewer resources and preparation than Welles had, Radio Quito in Ecuador decided to emulate the master and recreate its own The War of the Worlds fake. But instead of provoking an "aha" moment, if not an explosion of fear among the citizens, the experiment had an effect never expected by its producers. 

At that time, Radio Quito, which was located in the offices of the newspaper El Comercio, had great prestige as a serious and reliable news media. The plan of the station's director, Leonardo Páez, was to broadcast the fake without even his own colleagues knowing about it, except for Chilean actor Eduardo Alcaraz, who was an expert in radio soaps and was going to put a voice to the very loud production. 

Radio Quito's media was much more humble and the announcer announced the alien invasion by speaking through a glass.

While a live performance by Benítez and Valencia was being broadcast, both singers fell silent. The last informative hour broke, where the announcer (Alcaraz) declared that they had spotted a flying saucer in the Galapagos Islands and that it was getting dangerously close to the city.

The hoax did not last long, just about 20 minutes before the population learned that it had been a joke. Something, on the other hand, quite obvious since Eduardo Alcaraz spoke through a glass (the special effects of the time) and his voice was mixed with that of other military commanders and evacuation orders.

"At this moment a deadly poisonous gas is being spread", the speaker said. 

Meanwhile, other stations also fell for the scam and began to report the fake, until the threat was too great: Several UFOs were besieging Quito! Were they seen by the neighbors? They were flying over the neighborhood of Cotocollao. 

Neighborhood rage

When word of the experiment spread, an angry crowd surrounded the radio station, throwing stones and setting fire to the door. The flames spread through the piles of newspapers in El Comercio, waiting for the night's delivery. The devastation was total.

The journalists who were in the newsroom at the time called for help, but the police did not go to help them, thinking it was part of the joke. 

The result was terrible. People trying to jump from one building to another to escape the flames and El Comercio turned into a skeleton of concrete and ashes. 

Five people died, several committed suicide in shock and the damage was uncountable.

Radio Quito was closed for two years and returned to the battle in 1951. But they were taught to play at emulating Orson Welles himself.

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