CONCEPCION, Chile (Reuters) – One of the world’s most powerful earthquakes in a century battered Chile yesterday, killing at least 214 people, knocking down buildings and triggering a tsunami that threatened Pacific coastlines as far away as Hawaii and Russia.
Buildings caught fire, bridges collapsed and debris blocked streets across swathes of central Chile, but the initial death toll was relatively low from a quake packing many times more power than the one that devastated Haiti last month.
A 15-storey building collapsed in Concepcion, the closest major city to the epicenter, and overturned cars lay scattered below a fallen overpass in the capital Santiago. Telephone and power lines went down, making it difficult to assess the full extent of the damage and loss of life.
The government said at least 214 people were killed in the 8.8-magnitude quake, which struck at 3:34 a.m. (1:34 a.m. EST), sending people rushing from their beds and onto the streets in fear, hugging each other and crying.
“It came in waves and lasted so long. Three minutes is an eternity. We kept worrying that it was getting stronger, like a terrifying Hollywood movie,” said Santiago housewife Dolores Cuevas.
One emergency official said the number of deaths was unlikely to increase dramatically, and a U.S. Geological Survey researcher attributed the low toll to Chile’s solid building standards.
But it was the fifth-largest earthquake since 1900 and dealt a blow to the economy and infrastructure of the world’s No. 1 copper producer and one of Latin America’s most developed and stable countries.
“This will be a major blow to the country’s infrastructure; there has been major damage to roads, airports, which are now suspended, ports and also in housing,” Chilean President-elect Sebastian Pinera said.
The quake halted operations at two oil refineries and two major copper mines and the government said an estimated half a million homes were severely damaged.
President Michelle Bachelet said a huge wave hit the Juan Fernandez islands, an archipelago where Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned in the 18th century, inspiring the novel Robinson Crusoe.
“There was a series of waves that got bigger and bigger, which gave people time to save themselves,” pilot Fernando Avaria told TVN television by telephone from the main island. Three people were killed and four missing there, he said.
Tsunami warnings were posted around the Pacific, including the U.S. state of Hawaii, Japan and Russia. The U.S. Navy said it was pulling six ships out of Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor ahead of the tsunami, which was expected to hit the island at heights of up to 8 feet.
Unusually big waves battered Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, where residents were moved to higher ground as a precaution.
Bachelet said residents were evacuated from coastal areas of Chile’s remote Easter Island, a popular tourist destination in the Pacific famous for its towering Moai stone statues.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake struck 70 miles northeast of Concepcion at a depth of 22 miles.
Chile’s capital of Santiago, about 200 miles north of the epicenter, was also badly hit. The international airport was closed for at least 24 hours as the quake destroyed passenger walkways and shook glass out of doors and windows.
“I thought I’d blown a tire … but then I saw the highway moving like it was a piece of paper and I realised it was something much worse,” said one man who was forced to abandon his car on a wrecked highway overpass.
At least 269 prisoners took advantage of the quake to escape from a prison about 250 miles south of Santiago, police said. Twenty-eight of the inmates were captured and three shot.
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 the south to Valparaiso, about 500 miles to the north.
President Barack Obama called Bachelet and said the United States stood ready to help Chile. He also urged Americans to heed warnings about a possible tsunami that could affect the U.S. West Coast and Hawaii.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to visit Chile on Tuesday on a Latin American tour.
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