GUAYAQUIL: Ecuador launched rescue operations on Sunday after its biggest earthquake in decades killed at least 77 people, caused devastation in coastal populations and left an unknown number trapped in ruins.
The 7.8 magnitude quake struck off Ecuador`s Pacific coast on Saturday night and was felt around the Andean nation of 16 million people, causing panic in the capital Quito and collapsing buildings in the large commercial city of Guayaquil.
Nearly 600 people were injured.
Northwestern coastal areas nearest the quake were worst affected, including Pedernales, a tourist spot with beaches and palm trees, and nearby Cojimies. 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," 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.
"There are villages that are totally devastated," Pedernales` major Gabriel Alcivar, said in a radio interview, adding that "dozens and dozens" had died in the rustic zone.
"What happened here in Pedernales is catastrophic."
Authorities said there were 135 aftershocks in the Pedernales area. One photo on social media purporting to be the entrance to Pedernales showed a torn up road with a crushed car in the middle and people standing behind.
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.
About 13,500 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.
FLEEING FOR HIGHER GROUND
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.
"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 phone service 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 called it 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.
Among international aid, Venezuela and Mexico were sending personnel and supplies, the Correa government said.
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 pieces falling off roofs.
"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 ... We left barefoot."
State officials said the OPEC member`s oil production was not affected by the quake but the principal refinery of Esmeraldas, located near the epicenter, had been halted as a precaution.
The Ecuadorean quake followed two large and deadly quakes that struck Japan since Thursday.
Both countries are located on the seismically active "Ring of Fire" that circles the Pacific, but according to the U.S. Geological Survey large quakes separated by such long distances would probably not be related.
"Even the earth`s rocky crust is not rigid enough to transfer stress efficiently over thousands of miles," it said on its web site. Quakes can cause other big quakes within a range of hundreds of miles, but can cause only small, brief quakes at a distance of thousands of miles, it said.