A massive magnitude-8,8 earthquake struck south-central Chile early on Saturday, killing at least 78 people, knocking down homes and hospitals, and triggering a tsunami.
Buildings caught fire and residents huddled in streets strewn with glass and masonry, many terrified by powerful aftershocks and desperately trying to call friends and family.
President Michelle Bachelet said there were 78 confirmed deaths and that more were possible. Telephone and power lines were down, making it difficult to assess the full extent of the damage close to the epicenter.
Chile is the world’s number one copper producer, and the quake halted operations at two major mines near the capital.
“Never in my life have I experienced a quake like this, it’s like the end of the world,” one man told local television from the city of Temuco, where the quake damaged homes and forced staff to evacuate the regional hospital.
The US Geological Survey said the earthquake struck 90km north-east of the city of Concepción at a depth of 35km at 6.34am GMT.
The capital Santiago, about 320km north of the epicentre, was also badly hit. The international airport was forced to close as the quake destroyed passenger walkways and shook glass out of doors and windows,
Local television showed a building in flames in Concepción and said some residents looted pharmacies and other businesses in the chaos.
Broken glass and masonry were strewn across roads and several strong aftershocks rattled jittery residents in the hours after the initial quake.
In the moments after the quake, people streamed onto the streets of the capital, hugging each other and crying.
“My house is completely destroyed, everything fell over … it has been totally destroyed. Me and wife huddled in a corner and after hours they rescued us,” said one elderly man in central Santiago.
There were blackouts in parts of Santiago and communications were still down in the area closest to the epicenter. Emergency officials said buildings in the historic quarters of two southern cities had been badly damaged and local radio said three hospitals had partially collapsed.
Chile’s main copper producing region and some of the world’s largest copper mines are in the far north of the country near its border with Peru, but there are also major copper deposits near Santiago.
Production was halted at the Los Bronces and El Soldado copper mines, owned by Anglo American following the quake, but Chile’s biggest copper mine, Escondida, was operating normally.
Chile produces about 34% of world supply of copper, which is used in electronics, cars and refrigerators.
Bachelet urged people to stay calm and to remain at home to avoid road accidents. “With a quake of this size we undoubtedly can’t rule out more deaths and probably injuries,” she said.
An earthquake of magnitude eight or over can cause “tremendous damage,” the USGS says. The quake that devastated Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince on January 12 was measured as magnitude seven.
Bachelet said a huge wave hit the Juan Fernandez islands off the Chilean coast. Radio stations reported serious damage on the archipelago, where Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned in the 18th Century inspiring the novel Robinson Crusoe.
Bachelet said a huge wave swept into the southern island of Juan Fernandez, and radio stations said it caused serious damage.
She said residents were being evacuated from coastal areas of Chile’s remote Easter Island, a popular tourist destination famous for its towering Moai statues.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said the tsunami may have been destructive along the coast near the epicentre “and could also be a threat to more distant coasts.”
It issued a Pacific-wide tsunami warning for countries in Latin America, and as far away as the US state of Hawaii as well as Japan, Russia, Philippines, Indonesia and the South Pacific.
According to a 2002 census, Concepción is one of the largest cities in Chile with a population of around 670 000.
In 1960, Chile was hit by the world’s biggest earthquake since records dating back to 1900.
The 9,5 magnitude quake devastated the south-central city of Valdivia, killing 1 655 people and sending a tsunami which battered Easter Island 3 700km off Chile’s Pacific seaboard and continued as far as Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines.
Saturday’s quake shook buildings as far away as Argentina’s Andean provinces of Mendoza and San Juan. A series of strong aftershocks rocked Chile’s coastal region from Valdivia in southern to Valparaíso, about 800km to the north.
The tsunami warning centre said there was a possibility the US state of Hawaii could be elevated to watch or warning status. – Reuters