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Hundreds dead in massive Chilean earthquake

Sunday, February 28, 2010 12:02:23 PM, IANS

A highway near Santiago is strewn with overturned vehicles after an 8.8-magnitude earth quake hit Concepcion, a city of 630,000 in Chile’s central coastal region

Santiago (DPA): Chilean authorities were assessing the damage from a massive earthquake that killed more than 300 people, as Asian nations braced Sunday for the resulting tsunami that was still racing across the Pacific Ocean.

Hundreds of people were missing and feared trapped under the rubble of buildings that buckled under the force of the 8.8 magnitude quake, the strongest to hit the South American nation since 1960.


The earthquake occurred at 3.34 a.m. (0634 GMT) Saturday, some 90 km north-east of Concepcion, a city of 630,000 in Chile’s central coastal region.


Significant damage was reported in the capital Santiago, 320 km north of the epicentre, affecting buildings, roads and closing the international airport.


Waves of 1.5 metres or less were reported in Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia. Comprehensive coastal warnings were issued in Japan, where the Chilean tsunami was expected Sunday afternoon with a height of up to 3 metres, and coastal residents on the Philippines Pacific shores fled for high ground in fear of the waves.


Some coastal areas of Chile were quickly struck by a post-quake wave, devastating some communities.


A wall of water swept across the Chilean island of Robinson Crusoe, 670 km off the coast. Three people were reported missing on the island.


President Michelle Bachelet declared a state of disaster in the worst-hit regions south of Santiago. “I have no doubt that we will make it through this,” she said in a nationally televised address.


Sebastian Pinera, who takes over from her as head of state March 11, appealed for solidarity.


The death toll rose throughout Saturday, reaching more than 300 by sundown. Authorities warned that more fatalities were likely.


In Conception, 150 people were feared trapped in a fallen, 14-storey apartment block.


“From the street we can hear the screaming of those who were caught under the new, 14-floor building,” one man said looking at the pile of rubble.


There were reports of unrest in one Santiago neighbourhood over shortages of water and power outages.


Santiago’s international airport was ordered closed to incoming and outgoing flights for at least three days, with a collapse reported in the terminal building. The city’s underground rail network was also closed.


Overturned cars littered motorway flyovers, which buckled and crumbled during the quake.


Power lines were down, water supplies were cut and burst gas pipes raised fears of explosions. Internet communications were disrupted and mobile phone networks badly damaged.


In Concepcion, damage was widespread. The offices of the region government were reported to have been destroyed, and the walls of the city’s prison collapsed, with hundreds of convicts reported to have escaped.


Chilean television showed footage of collapsed hospitals, burning buildings and wrecked bridges. Modern, high-rise buildings in Santiago were relatively unscathed by the quake and the scores of aftershocks.


With Chile’s prosperity and seismic history, the country has for decades required new construction to conform to earthquake-zone engineering standards.


UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered “rapid assistance” if sought by Chile. In Washington, President Barack Obama offered to deploy US resources “should the Chilean people need our help”.


The quake was 50 times more powerful than the one that claimed more than 200,000 lives Jan 12 in Haiti, said the head of the University of Santiago’s Seismological Institute, Sergio Barrientos.


The worst earthquake to hit Chile occurred in 1960, when a 9.5-magnitude quake and tsunami claimed 6,000 lives.




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