The biggest quake in decades struck Ecuador Saturday night, killing at least 233 people and causing devastation in populated coastal regions. Photos and video from the country on South America's western coast showed collapsed buildings, crushed cars, and rubble-strewn streets, with officials saying there may still be many people trapped in the rubble.
President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency, and announced on Twitter Sunday morning that the estimated death toll had increased from 77 to 233.
"Thank you to the whole world for solidarity," Correa said. "Our infinite love to the families of the dead."
The 7.8 magnitude quake struck off Ecuador's Pacific coast just around 8pm eastern time, and was felt across the Andean nation of 16 million people, causing panic in the capital Quito and collapsing buildings in the large commercial city of Guayaquil.
Northwestern coastal areas nearest the quake were worst affected, including Pedernales, a tourist spot with beaches and palm trees, and nearby Cojimies. But information was scant from there due to poor communications and transport chaos.
"There are people trapped in various places and we are starting rescue operations," Ecuador's Vice President Jorge Glas said on Sunday morning before boarding a plane to the area.
The toll of 77 dead and 588 injured was bound to rise, he said. A state of emergency was declared in six provinces.
Panic at the Supermarket
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"There are villages that are totally devastated," Pedernales' mayor Gabriel Alcivar, said in a radio interview, adding that "dozens and dozens" had died in the area.
"What happened here in Pedernales is catastrophic."
In Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, rubble lay in the streets and a bridge fell on top of a car.
"It was terrifying, we were all scared and we're still out in the streets because we're worried about aftershocks," said Guayaquil security guard Fernando Garcia.
Security force personnel were mobilized to keep order around Ecuador, and $600 million in credit from multilateral lenders was immediately activated for the emergency, the government said. Venezuela and Mexico were sending personnel and supplies.
Ramon Solorzano, 46, a car parts merchant in the coastal city of Manta, said he was leaving with his family.
"Most people are out in the streets with backpacks on, heading for higher ground," he said, speaking in a trembling voice on a WhatsApp phone call. "The streets are cracked. The power is out and phones are down."
President Rafael Correa cut short a trip to Italy to return to the country.
"Everything can be rebuilt, but lives cannot be recovered, and that's what hurts the most," he said.
Parts of the highland capital Quito were without power or telephone services for several hours but the city government said those services had been restored and there were no reports of casualties in the city.
The government described it as the worst quake in the country since 1979. In that disaster, 600 people were killed and 20,000 injured, according to the United States Geological Survey.
A tsunami warning was lifted on Saturday night but coastal residents were urged to seek higher ground in case tides rise.
"At first it was light, but it lasted a long time and got stronger," said Maria Jaramillo, 36, a resident of Guayaquil, describing windows breaking and roofs disintegrating and falling to the street below.
"I was on the seventh floor and the light went off in the whole sector, and we evacuated. People were very anxious in the street," Jaramillo added. "We left barefoot."
State officials said the OPEC member's oil production was not affected by the quake but operations at the principal refinery of Esmeraldas, located near the epicenter, had been halted as a precaution.
The Ecuadorian quake followed two quakes that struck Japan on the opposite side of the Pacific. A 7.3 magnitude tremor struck Kumamoto province early on Saturday, killing at least 32 people, injuring about a thousand and causing widespread damage. The first quake, late on Thursday, killed nine.
Ecuador and Japan are both located on the seismically active "Ring of Fire", which sweeps from the South Pacific islands, up through Indonesia, Japan, across to Alaska and down the west coast of the United States and Central and South America.
A smaller 6.1 magnitude quake hit the Pacific island nation of Tonga on Sunday, with no immediate reports of damage.
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