SANTIAGO, Chile - One of the largest earthquakes ever recorded tore apart houses, bridges and highways in central Chile on Saturday and sent a tsunami racing halfway around the world.
Chileans near the epicenter of the massive 8.8-magnitude quake 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.
Newly built apartment buildings slumped and fell. Flames devoured a prison. Millions of people fled into streets darkened by the failure of power lines. The collapse of bridges tossed and crushed cars and trucks.
"It came in waves and lasted so long. Three minutes is an eternity. We kept worrying that it was getting stronger, like a terrifying Hollywood movie," said Santiago resident Dolores Cuevas.
"Unfortunately, Chile is a country of catastrophes," President-elect Sebastian Pinera said, adding the quake heavily damaged many of the country's roads, airports and ports.
President Michelle Bachelet declared a "state of catastrophe" in central Chile. Officials said about 1.5 million homes were damaged across the Andean nation.
Hours after the quake, smaller-than-expected tsunami waves hit Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific Coast. There were no immediate reports of damage and a tsunami warning for Hawaii was soon lifted.
Japan issued a warning on Sunday for a tsunami of 10 feet or higher and warned coastal residents to evacuate to higher ground.
At least 214 people were killed and 15 were missing as of Saturday evening, Bachelet said in a national address on television. 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.
Dozens of aftershocks
Local radio reported 100 people were missing in a collapsed building in hard-hit Concepcion, one of Chile's largest cities with around 670,000 inhabitants. Firefighters rushed to put out fires, and most of the buildings in the city center were destroyed.
Map locates offshore epicenter in Chile
At least five people were killed by huge earthquake-triggered waves that smashed into Chile's Robinson Crusoe Island, named for the fictional, stranded sailor.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake struck 56 miles northeast of the city of Concepcion at a depth of 22 miles at 3:34 a.m. (1:34 a.m. ET). The quake shook buildings in Argentina's capital of Buenos Aires, and was felt as far away as Sao Paulo in Brazil — 1,800 miles to the east.
More than 60 aftershocks of magnitude 5 or greater were reported in the hours after the quake.
An earthquake also hit northern Argentina, causing a wall to collapse in Salta, killing an 8-year-old boy and injuring two of his friends, police said. The U.S. Geological Survey said the magnitude-6.3 temblor was a separate, "triggered earthquake" caused by ground waves from the Chilean quake.
A 15-story building collapsed in Concepcion, where buildings caught fire, bridges collapsed and cracks opened up in the streets. Concepcion's city hall also collapsed, according to radio reports.
"I was on the eighth floor and all of a sudden I was down here," said Fernando Abarzua, marveling that he escaped with no major injuries. He said a relative was still trapped in the rubble six hours after the quake, "but he keeps shouting, saying he's OK."
Upside-down cars lay scattered on a damaged highway bridge. Some residents looted pharmacies and a collapsed grain silo, hauling off bags of wheat, television images showed.
More than 200 inmates in a prison near Concepcion escaped when walls crumbled, Terra Networks reported.
Earthquake rocks Chile
A devastating magnitude-8.8 earthquake struck Chile early Saturday, setting off a tsunami that threatened every nation around the Pacific Ocean.
In the town of Talca, 65 miles from the epicenter, people were jostled from bed as their belongings cascaded around them from the shuddering walls.
A journalist emerging into the darkened street scattered with downed power lines 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 a cafe. Two other victims lay dead a few feet away.
In the capital of Santiago, 200 miles northeast of the epicenter, a car dangled from a collapsed overpass, the national Fine Arts Museum was badly damaged and an apartment building's two-story parking lot pancaked, smashing about 50 cars whose alarms rang incessantly.
“I saw how the cars fell off and I didn’t know what to do. I was alone here,” said Mario Riveros, a security guard at a factory in Santiago, as he stood next to a bridge that had fallen, according to La Segunda newspaper. “ I felt like crying.”
Three hospitals in Santiago collapsed, and a dozen more south of the capital also suffered significant damage, a health official said.
The jolt set off a tsunami that raced across the Pacific, setting off alarm sirens in Hawaii, Polynesia and Tonga. Tahitian officials banned all traffic on roads less than 1,600 feet from the sea and people in several low-lying island nations were urged to find higher ground.
Tidal surges of up to 7 feet hit some Hawaiian islands Saturday afternoon but there were no reports of damage or injuries. In southern California, a tidal surge swept away most of the navigational buoys in Ventura's harbor but no boats sank, officials reported.
Tsunami waves were also likely to hit Asian, Australian and New Zealand shores within 24 hours of the quake.
On the island of Robinson Crusoe, a huge tsunami wave flooded the village of San Juan Batista, killing at least five people and leaving 11 missing, said Guillermo de la Masa, head of the government emergency bureau for the Valparaiso region. He said the huge waves also damaged several government buildings on the island.
Pedro Forteza, a pilot who frequently flies to the island, said, "The village was destroyed by the waves, including the historic cemetery. I would say that 20 or 30 percent has disappeared."
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