Quito (AFP) – At least 41 people were killed when a powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Ecuador, destroying buildings and sending terrified residents dashing from their homes, authorities said.
“Oh, my God, it was the biggest and strongest earthquake I have felt in my whole life. It lasted a long time, and I was feeling dizzy,” said Maria Torres, 60, in the capital Quito, where people fled their homes during Saturday evening’s quake.
“I couldn’t walk… I wanted to run out into the street, but I couldn’t.”
Vice President Jorge Glas said the death toll will likely rise further in what he called the “worst seismic movement we have faced in decades.”
“Sadly the information we currently have is that 41 citizens have lost their lives in this emergency… This death toll will unfortunately rise in the coming hours,” Glas said in televised comments.
He said that a state of emergency was declared in the six worst-hit provinces.
Police, the military and emergency services “are in a state of maximum alert to protect the lives of citizens.”
In the Pacific port city of Guayaquil, home to more than two million people, a bridge had collapsed, crushing a car beneath it, and residents were picking through the wreckage of houses left in heaps of rubble and timber, an AFP photographer reported.
Ecuador’s Geophysical Office reported “considerable” structural damage “in the area near the epicenter as well as points as far away as Guayaquil.”
– Earthquake zone –
The US Geological Survey (USGS) said the shallow quake struck off the northwest shore of Ecuador with a magnitude of 7.8. Glas gave a slightly lower measurement of magnitude 7.6.
Ecuador lies near a shifting boundary between tectonic plates and has suffered seven earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or higher in the region of Tuesday’s quake since 1900, the USGS said. One in March 1987 killed about 1,000 people, it said.
The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center initially issued a warning for the nearby Pacific coastline but later said that the threat had largely passed.
President Rafael Correa, on a visit to the Vatican, sent a message of support on Twitter.
“Authorities are already out evaluating damage and taking action” as needed,” he said.
– ‘Severe damage’ –
The quake struck at 2358 GMT about 170 km from Quito and just 27 kilometers from the town of Muisne, according to the US Geological Survey, which monitors earthquakes worldwide.
Various smaller quakes jolted the same area.
The strong movement was felt in Quito, knocking out electricity in places. Authorities did not immediately report injuries there though media showed pictures of damaged shops.
Cristina Duran, 45, grabbed her three pets and stood under a large doorway to avoid shards of glass falling from shattered windows.
“I was frightened. And I just kept asking for it to be over,” she told AFP.
Authorities closed the airport in the western city of Manta, saying the control tower suffered “severe damage.”
– Shock and panic –
At the Guayaquil airport passengers awaiting flights dashed out of terminals when they felt the shaking.
“Lights fell down from the ceiling. People were running around in shock,” said Luis Quimis, 30, who was waiting to catch a flight to Quito.
In northern Quito, people ran out of their homes frightened, as power lines swayed back and forth and cables danced.
Quakes also rattled northern Peru and southern Colombia, according to authorities in those countries, although no casualties were reported. Peruvian officials however urged coastal residents to stay away from the beach.
The quake came as rescuers in Japan were racing against the weather and the threat of more landslides to reach people still trapped by two big earthquakes that hit that country’s south.
At least 41 people are known to have died in that double disaster, with at least six still missing — feared buried in shattered houses or under torrents of mud.