One of the world’s most powerful earthquakes in a century pounded Chile on Saturday, killing more than 300 people as it toppled buildings and triggered tsunamis that ravaged a port town and threatened Pacific coastlines as far away as Japan.
Buildings caught fire, others crumbled and bridges collapsed across swathes of central Chile, but the initial death toll was relatively low from a quake many times stronger than the one that devastated Haiti last month.
An apartment block with up to 200 people inside collapsed in Concepcion, the closest major city to the epicentre, and rescue officials said they were unsure how many escaped.
Overturned cars lay scattered below a fallen overpass in the capital Santiago and telephone and power lines went down across the narrow country, making it difficult to assess the full extent of the damage and loss of life.
Chile’s government said more than 300 people were killed in the 8.8-magnitude quake, which struck at 3:34 a.m. (0634 GMT), 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.
It was the fifth-largest earthquake since 1900 and dealt a serious 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.
The quake halted operations at two oil refineries and two major copper mines and Chile’s government said an estimated half a million homes were severely damaged. In Concepcion, a city of 670,000 people, some residents whose homes were wrecked pushed their belongings in shopping carts on the streets.
Water and electrical services were down and many residents camped outdoors, fearful after a series of big aftershocks. “I’ve been told I lost all of my furniture, my TV, my refrigerator, but it doesn’t matter to me. I’m just happy my family is safe,” said Francisco Luna, a 42-year-old air-conditioner repairman.
Chilean officials said the number of deaths was unlikely to increase dramatically, and a US Geological Survey researcher attributed the low toll to Chile’s solid building standards.
TSUNAMI A tsunami swept into the port town of Talcahuano, causing serious damage to port facilities and lifting fishing boats out of the water.
Television pictures showed shipping containers strewn around and flooded streets in the port, one of the most important in southern Chile.
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. But at least four people were killed and 13 others were missing on the island, a local official said.
Fifteen hours after the quake struck Chile, the tsunami reached Hawaii’s Big Island, where residents and tourists were evacuated from low-lying coastal areas. The tsunami warning was later lifted for Hawaii, but Japanese officials said a wave up to 3 meters (10 feet) high could hit the country’s Pacific coast and warned residents to evacuate coastal areas.
The US Geological Survey said the earthquake struck 70 miles (115 km) northeast of Concepcion at a depth of 22 miles (35 km). It said an earthquake of magnitude 8 or over can cause “tremendous damage.”
The January 12 quake that devastated Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince and killed well over 200,000 people was measured as magnitude 7.0.
CAPITAL DAMAGED, MINES SHUT
Chile’s capital of Santiago, about 200 miles (320 km) north of the epicentre, 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. Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, suspended operations at its El Teniente and Andina mines, but reported no major damage and said it expected the mines to be up and running in the “coming hours.”
Production was halted at the Los Bronces and El Soldado copper mines, owned by Anglo American Plc, but Chile’s biggest copper mine, Escondida, was operating normally.
Chile produces about 34 percent of world supply of copper, which is used in electronics, cars and refrigerators.
In Concepcion, at least 12 buildings caught fire and rescue workers pulled 22 people from the rubble of the 15-storey apartment block that pancaked onto itself. Some residents looted pharmacies and a collapsed grains silo, hauling off bags of wheat, television images showed.
At least 269 prisoners took advantage of the quake to escape from a prison about 250 miles (450 km) south of Santiago, police said. Twenty-eight of the inmates were captured and three shot. “It was like we were being shaken around in a box,” said Claudia Rosario, a 27-year-old receptionist in Temuco, 175 miles (280 km) south of Concepcion.
She said residents there were without water and electricity. An eight-year-old boy and a man were killed in the northern Argentine city of Salta when a powerful aftershock caused walls to collapse, officials said.
In 1960, Chile was hit by a 9.5-magnitude earthquake, one of the biggest ever recorded. It devastated the city of Valdivia, killed 1,655 people and spawned a tsunami that engulfed the Pacific Ocean, taking another 200 lives in Japan, Hawaii and the Philippines.
President Barack Obama called Bachelet on Saturday and said the United States stood ready to help Chile. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to visit Chile on Tuesday on a Latin America tour.