A powerful, 7,9-magnitude earthquake, the strongest to rock Peru in decades, killed at least 115 people and injured nearly 1 000 others on Wednesday, with many more casualties feared.
The quake, which lasted for almost two minutes, sent people fleeing into the streets and prompted evacuations in cities along South America’s Pacific coast after tsunami warnings were issued.
Those alerts, by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, were later cancelled.
The earthquake, which struck just offshore of Peru at 11.41pm GMT, was felt across the country and to the far north in Ecuador. It knocked down houses and structures south of Lima.
The casualty toll was expected to rise throughout the night, and hospitals and health centres around the country were put on high alert. A strike launched on Wednesday by some health workers was called off so that all medical personnel could be available to help with the emergency.
In 1970, a quake of similar size in Peru killed about 70 000 people.
Wednesday’s quake toppled trees, fractured windows and left visible damage in homes and buildings. Telecommunications in Lima were also cut but were being slowly re-established, while power and water services appeared to continue without interruption.
Firefighters said lampposts collapsed and windows shattered in Lima. Hundreds of workers were evacuated from office buildings and remained outside.
The quake and aftershocks sparked panic in the capital, where people remained in the streets hours after the first big tremor, and buildings were evacuated for safety.
”This is the strongest earthquake I’ve ever felt,” said Maria Pilar Mena (47), a sandwich vendor in Lima. ”When the quake struck, I thought it would never end.”
Police reported that large boulders shook loose from hills and were blocking the country’s Central Highway east of Lima.
Peruvian President Alan Garcia, without citing any numbers, said that ”fortunately there was not a high number of deaths for an event of this size”.
But ”there are areas seriously damaged”, he added, declaring schools across the country closed on Thursday to inspect classrooms for damage.
In the coastal city of Ica, 300km south of Lima, at least four were reported dead and dozens injured when the quake crumpled the Senor de Luren church during a worship service. The nearby city of Pisco was also hit hard as people reportedly died after homes collapsed from the tremor.
The quake struck offshore 148km south-southeast of Lima at a depth of 40km, according to the United States Geological Survey.
A second, 5,9-magnitude earthquake struck about an hour and 20 minutes later near the same location and at a depth of 10km.
Late on Wednesday, the country was rattled by a 5,6-magnitude aftershock near the coast of central Peru.
Nearly 40 minutes after the quake first struck, at 00.19am GMT, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued warnings and watches for the 11 countries along the Pacific south of the US, especially Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.
In reaction, the Colombian government ordered evacuations in the port cities of Tumaco and Buenaventura and the coastal town of Bahia Solano, while Peruvian authorities told residents of La Punta district, in the port of Callao that serves Lima, to leave their homes.
Although a subsequent advisory from the centre stated that sea-level and subsurface instruments indicated a tsunami had been generated by the quake, the warning was cancelled at 2.09am GMT.
Wednesday’s temblor occurred in a subduction zone where one section of the Earth’s crust dives under another, said US Geological Survey geophysicist Dale Grant at the National Earthquake Information Centre in Golden, Colorado.
Some of the world’s biggest quakes strike in subduction zones, including the catastrophic Indian Ocean quake in 2004 that generated deadly tsunami waves. — Sapa-AFP, Sapa-AP