Source: Denver Post (TALCA, Chile) - One of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded tore apart houses, bridges and highways in central Chile on Saturday and sent a tsunami racing halfway around the world, raising tensions in Hawaii and around the Pacific Rim.
Chileans near the epicenter were tossed about as if shaken by a giant, and the head of the emergency agency said authorities believed at least 300 people were dead.
The magnitude-8.8 quake — matching the seventh-strongest on record — was felt as far away as São Paulo in Brazil, 1,800 miles to the east. The full extent of the damage remained unclear as dozens of aftershocks, one nearly as powerful as Haiti's devastating Jan. 12 earthquake, shuddered across the disaster-prone Andean nation.
President Michelle Bachelet declared a "state of catastrophe" in central Chile but said the government had not asked for assistance from other countries.
If it does, President Barack Obama said, the U.S. "will be there." Around the world, leaders echoed his sentiment.
At least 214 people were known to have been killed, and 15 were missing as of Saturday evening, Bachelet said in a televised address. While that remained the official estimate, Carmen Fernandez, head of the National Emergency Agency, said later: "We think the real figure tops 300. And we believe this will continue to grow."
Bachelet also said 1.5 million people had been affected by the quake, and officials in her administration said 500,000 homes were severely damaged.
In Talca, 65 miles from the epicenter, people sleeping in bed suddenly felt as if they were flying through major airplane turbulence. Their belongings cascaded around them from the shuddering walls beginning at 3:34 a.m. Saturday (11:34 p.m. MST Friday).
A journalist emerging into a darkened street saw a man, some of his own bones apparently broken, weeping and caressing the hand of a woman who had died in the collapse of Vehicles flung like toys are strewn along a collapsed highway in Santiago, Chile, on Saturday. Its epicenter was just 70 miles from Concepcion, Chile's second-largest city; a saving grace was that the epicenter was offshore.
Also near the epicenter was Concepcion, one of the country's largest cities, where a 15-story building collapsed, leaving only a few floors intact.
"I was on the eighth floor, and all of a sudden I was down here," said Fernando Abarzua, marveling that he had escaped with no major injuries. He said a relative was still trapped six hours after the quake, "but he keeps shouting, saying he's OK."
While most modern buildings in Santiago, 200 miles to the north, survived, a bell tower collapsed on the Nuestra Senora de la Providencia church and several damaged hospitals were evacuated.
Santiago's airport was closed, the subway was shut, and buses were stuck behind a damaged bridge.
The jolt set off a tsunami that hit a village on Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile, killing at least five people and leaving 11 missing, officials said.
About 13 million people live in the area where shaking was strong to severe, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
USGS geophysicist Robert Williams said the Chilean quake was hundreds of times more powerful than Haiti's magnitude-7.0 quake, though it was deeper and cost far fewer lives. More than 50 aftershocks topped magnitude 5.0, including one of magnitude 6.9.
The largest earthquake ever recorded struck the same area of Chile on May 22, 1960. That magnitude-9.5 quake killed at least 1,716 people and left 2 million homeless. It caused a tsunami that killed people in Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines and caused damage on the U.S. West Coast.