MUISNE, Ecuador, April 17 (UPI) — Ecuador was hit Saturday with the most powerful earthquake the country has experienced since 1979, leaving as many as 77 dead and hundreds injured.
The 7.8-magnitude quake hit at 6:58 p.m. near the northern town of Muisne, BBC reported, leaving severe and widespread damage in its wake, including a collapsed bridge in Guayaquil about 190 miles away.
The Geophysical Institute in Ecuador reported the quake’s epicenter was in the coastal province of Esmeraldas.
Government officials warned Ecuador could experience aftershocks for the next 24 hours, Telesur reported.
President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency as he flew back from Italy. “This is a very painful test,” he said, asking Ecuador’s citizens to remain calm and united. “Let’s be strong. We will overcome this.”
Correa said 10,000 troops and 3,500 police had been mobilized to the affected areas but there had been reports of “a lack of public order” in the city of Portoviejo. Many of those injured had yet to be reached Sunday morning.
“We’re trying to do the most we can but there’s almost nothing we can do,” said Pedernales Mayor Gabriel Alcivar, from his town near the epicenter. He said dozens of buildings were flattened and looters were out.
“This wasn’t just a house that collapsed, it was an entire town,” Alcivar said.
“I never felt something like that in my life. It was so strong, I was feeling very, very scared,” said Carla Peralto, a resident of Boyaca, one of the hardest-hit areas. “I was thinking God please stop that because maybe I die today.”
Among the reported damage was an airport tower in the city of Manta, along with several other buildings. Power was reported out and phone service was down.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake struck at a fairly shallow depth of 11.9 miles in a sparsely populated area outside Muisne.
Already, Correa said, the international community has come together to offer help for earthquake victims. He confirmed two rescue teams from Colombia and Mexico were heading to Ecuador to assist national authorities.
Meanwhile, the U.S military announced Sunday it would join relief efforts in Japan following powerful earthquakes that killed 41 people. The first earthquake measured 6.8 on the Richter scale. A second quake measure 7.3.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his country is “extremely grateful, and we would like to coordinate quickly and have the emergency relief be transported in as soon as possible.”
Nearly 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes as rescuers fought rainy weather to search for survivors, Japan’s Keye-News reported..
The epicenter was about 150 miles from Oita — the sister city to Austin, Texas, and the place where Austin resident John Conley was when he was shaken twice from his sleep.
“We were lying in bed fast asleep and suddenly the alarm on my phone went off,” he said. Conley quickly realized the alarm was part of Japan’s earthquake notification system. “About 30 seconds later the room began to shake, go up and down side to side,” he said.
The earthquakes in both Ecuador and in Japan occurred within a geographic area known as the Ring of Fire, a horse-shoe shaped area about 25,000 miles around where a string of 452 volcanoes stretch from the southern tip of South America up the coast of North America, across the Bering Strait, then down through Japan and New Zealand.
#EcuadorQuake Response teams of Red Cross and paramedics continue to reach areas affected by earthquake pic.twitter.com/jPDHelktfd— CRUZ ROJA ECUADOR (@cruzrojaecuador) April 17, 2016