One of the largestearthquakes ever recorded tore apart houses, bridges and highways incentral Chile on Saturday and sent a tsunami racing halfway around theworld. Chileans near the epicenter were tossed about as if shaken by agiant, and the head of the emergency agency said authorities believedat least 300 people were dead.
The magnitude-8.8 quake was feltas far away as Sao Paulo in Brazil — 2,900 kilometers tothe east. The full extent of damage remained unclear as dozens ofaftershocks — one nearly as powerful as Haiti's devastating Jan. 12earthquake — shuddered across the disaster-prone Andean nation.
PresidentMichelle Bachelet declared a "state of catastrophe" in central Chilebut said the government had not asked for assistance from othercountries. If it does, US President Barack Obama said, the United States"will be there." Around the world, leaders echoed his sentiment.
Israeli ForeignMinistry spokesman Yigal Palmor on Sunday morning said that the IsraeliEmbassy in Santiago did not find any names of Israelis in the lists ofof casualties and fatalities released by authorities in Chile. Channel 2 reported that some 20 Israelis currently in Chile had not yet been accounted for after the quake. Chile is a popular travel destination for Israelis traveling after their army service.
Newly built apartment buildings slumped and fell. Flamesdevoured a prison. Millions of people fled into streets darkened by thefailure of power lines. The collapse of bridges tossed and crushed carsand trucks, and complicated efforts to reach quake-damaged areas byroad.
At least 214 people were killed and 15 were missing as ofSaturday evening, Bachelet said in a national address on television.While that remained the official estimate, Carmen Fernandez, head ofthe National Emergency Agency, said later: "We think the real figuretops 300. And we believe this will continue to grow."
Bacheletalso said 1.5 million people had been affected by the quake, andofficials in her administration said 500,000 homes were severelydamaged.
In Talca, just 105 kilometers from theepicenter, people sleeping in bed suddenly felt like they were flyingthrough major airplane turbulence as their belongings cascaded aroundthem from the shuddering walls at 3:34 a.m. (1:34 a.m. EST, 0634 GMT).
Adeafening roar rose from the convulsing earth as buildings groaned andclattered. The sound of screams was confused with the crash of platesand windows.
Then the earth stilled, silence returned and a smell of damp dust rose in the streets, where stunned survivors took refuge.
Ajournalist emerging into the darkened street scattered with downedpower lines saw a man, some of his own bones apparently broken, weepingand caressing the hand of a woman who had died in the collapse of acafe. Two other victims lay dead a few feet (meters) away.
Alsonear the epicenter was Concepcion, one of the country's largest cities,where a 15-story building collapsed, leaving a few floors intact.
"Iwas on the 8th floor and all of a sudden I was down here," saidFernando Abarzua, marveling that he escaped with no major injuries. Hesaid a relative was still trapped in the rubble six hours after thequake, "but he keeps shouting, saying he's OK."
Chilean statetelevision reported that 209 inmates escaped from prison in the city ofChillan, near the epicenter, after a fire broke out.
In thecapital of Santiago, 325 kilometers to the northeast, thenational Fine Arts Museum was badly damaged and an apartment building'stwo-story parking lot pancaked, smashing about 50 cars whose alarmsrang incessantly.
A car dangled from a collapsed overpass whileoverturned vehicles lay scattered below. "I can now say in all suretythat seat belts save lives in automobiles," said Cristian Alcaino, whosurvived the fall in his car.
While most modern buildingssurvived, a bell tower collapsed on the Nuestra Senora de laProvidencia church and several hospitals were evacuated due to damage.
Santiago'sairport was closed, with smashed windows, partially collapsed ceilingsand destroyed pedestrian walkways in the passenger terminals. Thecapital's subway was shut as well, and transportation was furtherlimited because hundreds of buses were stuck behind a damaged bridge.
Chile'smain seaport, in Valparaiso about 120 kilometers fromSantiago, was ordered closed while damage was assessed. Two oilrefineries shut down, and lines of cars snaked out of service stationsacross the country as nervous drivers rushed to fill up.
Thestate-run Codelco, the world's largest copper producer, halted work attwo of its mines, although it said it expected them to resumeoperations quickly, the newspaper La Tercera reported.
President-electSebastian Pinera angrily reported seeing some looting while flying overdamaged areas. He vowed "to fight with maximum energy looting attemptsthat I saw with my own eyes."
The jolt set off a tsunami thatswamped San Juan Bautista village on Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile,killing at least five people and leaving 11 missing, said Guillermo dela Masa, head of the government emergency bureau for the Valparaisoregion. He said the huge waves also damaged several governmentbuildings on the island.
Pedro Forteza, a pilot who frequentlyflies to the island, said, "The village was destroyed by the waves,including the historic cemetery. I would say that 20 or 30 percent hasdisappeared."
On the mainland, several huge waves inundated partof the major port city of Talcahuano, near the hard-hit city ofConcepcion. A large boat was swept more than a block inland. Pineraflew over the area and said an unspecified number of people had died inTalacahuano.
Waves also flooded hundreds of houses in the town of Vichato, in the BioBio region.
Thesurge of water raced across the Pacific, setting off alarm sirens inHawaii, Polynesia and Tonga and prompting warnings across all 53nations ringing the vast ocean.
Tsunami waves washed acrossHawaii, where little damage was reported. The U.S. Navy moved ahalf-dozen vessels out of Pearl Harbor as a precaution, Navy spokesmanLt. Myers Vasquez said. Shore-side Hilo International Airport wasclosed. In California, officials said a 1-meter surge inVentura Harbor pulled loose several navigational buoys.
The firsttsunami waves hit Japan's outlying islands early Sunday, but while theinitial waves were small and most of the Pacific islands already in itspath had been spared damage, officials warned a bigger surge couldfollow.
Japan's Meteorological Agency said the first waves wererecorded in the Ogasawara islands. It was just 10centimeters high. Another, measuring about 30 centimeters,was observed in Hokkaido, to the north. There were no reports of damage.
About13 million people live in the area where shaking from the quake wasstrong to severe, according to the US Geological Survey. USGSgeophysicist Robert Williams said the Chilean quake was hundreds oftimes more powerful than Haiti's magnitude-7 quake, though it wasdeeper and cost far fewer lives.
More than 50 aftershocks topped magnitude 5, including one of magnitude 6.9.
Atremor also hit northern Argentina, causing a wall to collapse inSalta, killing an 8-year-old boy and injuring two of his friends,police said. The US Geological Survey said the magnitude-6.3 quakewas unrelated to Chile's disaster.The largest earthquake everrecorded struck the same area of Chile on May 22, 1960. Themagnitude-9.5 quake killed 1,655 people and left 2 million homeless. Itcaused a tsunami that killed people in Hawaii, Japan and thePhilippines and caused damage along the west coast of the United States.
Saturday's quake matched a 1906 temblor off the Ecuadorean coast as the seventh-strongest ever recorded in the world.