Ecuador quake flattens buildings; death toll now at 77

2016-04-17 14:46
A car lies under the rubble of a house that collapsed. (AP)

A car lies under the rubble of a house that collapsed. (AP)

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Pedernales - The strongest earthquake to hit Ecuador in decades flattened buildings and buckled highways along its Pacific coast, sending the Andean nation into a state of emergency.

As rescue workers rushed in, officials said on Sunday at least 77 people were killed, over 588 injured and the damage stretched for hundreds of miles to the capital and other major cities.

The magnitude-7.8 quake, the strongest to hit Ecuador since 1979, was centred on Ecuador's sparsely populated fishing ports and tourist beaches, 170km northwest of Quito, the capital.

Vice President Jorge Glas said there were deaths in the cities of Manta, Portoviejo and Guayaquil - all several hundred kilometres from the centre of the quake struck shortly after nightfall.

In Pedernales, a town of 40 000 near the quake's epicentre, dozens of scared residents slept in the streets while men using car headlights tried to rescue survivors trapped under rubble.

"We're trying to do the most we can, but there's almost nothing we can do," said Gabriel Alcivar, mayor of Pedernales.

Looting amid the chaos

Alcivar pleaded for authorities to send earth-moving machines and emergency rescue workers as dozens of buildings in the town were flattened, trapping residents among the rubble. He said looting had broken out amid the chaos but authorities were too busy trying to save lives to re-establish order.

"This wasn't just a house that collapsed, it was an entire town," he said.

President Rafael Correa signed a decree declaring a national emergency and rushed home from a visit to Rome, urging Ecuadoreans to stay strong while authorities handle the disaster.

Ecuador's Risk Management agency said 10 000 armed forces had been deployed to help. In addition, 3 500 national police were sent to the towns of Manabí, Esmeraldas and Guayas y Santa Elena; 500 firefighters were heading to Manabi and Pedernales and five shelters had been set up for those who had to evacuate their homes.

On social media, photos circulated of homes reduced to rubble, a shopping centre's roof torn apart, supermarket shelves shaking violently and a collapsed highway overpass that crushed a car.

A state of panic

In Manta, the airport was closed after the control tower collapsed, injuring an air traffic control worker and a security guard.

In the capital Quito, terrified people fled into the streets as the quake shook their buildings. It knocked out electricity in several neighbourhoods and six homes collapsed but after a few hours, power was being restored, Quito's Mayor Mauricio Rodas said.

"I'm in a state of panic," said Zoila Villena, one of many Quito residents who congregated in the streets. "My building moved a lot and things fell to the floor. Lots of neighbours were screaming and kids crying."

Among those killed was the driver of a car crushed by an overpass that buckled in Guayaquil, the country's most populous city. The city's international airport was also briefly closed.

Hydroelectric dams and oil pipelines in the Opec-member nation were shut down as a precautionary measure but so there were no reports of damage to them.

Towns near the epicentre were evacuated as a precautionary measure in case of hazardous tsunami waves but several hours later authorities said was safe for coastal residents to return to their homes.

Sports events and concerts were cancelled until further notice nationwide.

"It's very important that Ecuadoreans remain calm during this emergency," Glas said from Ecuador's national crisis room.

The US Geological Survey originally put the quake at a magnitude of 7.4 then raised it to 7.8. It had a depth of 19km. Dozens of aftershocks followed, one as strong as magnitude-5.5, and authorities urged residents to brace for even stronger ones in the coming hours and days.

David Rothery, a professor of geosciences at The Open University northeast of London said the quake was about six times as strong as the most powerful of two deadly earthquakes across the Pacific, in the southernmost of Japan's four main islands.

A magnitude-6.5 earthquake struck Thursday near Kumamoto, followed by a magnitude-7.0 earthquake just 28 hours later. The quakes have killed 41 people and injured about 1 500, flattened houses and triggered major landslides.

On Sunday, thousands of rescue workers searched a debris-strewn village in southern Japan for about a half-dozen missing people as U.S. military aircraft rushed to join the relief mission.

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