Earthquake kills 238 in Ecuador; emergency workers rush in

Rescuers pulled survivors from rubble Sunday after the strongest earthquake to hit Ecuador in decades. 

PTI| Updated: Apr 18, 2016, 01:55 AM IST

Pedernales: Rescuers pulled survivors from rubble Sunday after the strongest earthquake to hit Ecuador in decades flattened buildings and buckled highways along its Pacific coast. Officials said the quake had killed at least 238 people and injured more than 1,500.

The magnitude-7.8 quake, the strongest to hit Ecuador since 1979, was centered on Ecuador's sparsely populated fishing ports and tourist beaches, 105 miles (170 kilometers) northwest of Quito, the capital.

Vice President Jorge Glas reported the death toll at a somber news conference, while President Rafael Correa flew back from Rome to deal with the crisis. He said 1,557 people were injured.

Glas said there were deaths in the cities of Manta, Portoviejo and Guayaquil all several hundred kilometers (miles) from the center of the quake, which struck shortly after nightfall Saturday.

In Pedernales, a town of 40,000 near the quake's epicenter, dozens of frightened residents slept in the streets while men equipped with little more than car headlights tried to rescue survivors who could be heard trapped under the rubble.

"We're trying to do the most we can, but there's almost nothing we can do," said Pedernales Mayor Gabriel Alcivar. Alcivar pleaded for authorities to send earth-moving machines and rescue workers to help find people in 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.

Correa declared a national emergency and urged Ecuadoreans to stay strong.

"Everything can be rebuilt, but what can't be rebuilt are human lives, and that's the most painful," he said in a telephone call to state TV before departing Rome for Manta. Glas said the country had already deployed 10,000 armed forces. In addition, 4,600 national police were sent to towns near the epicenter.

Would-be rescuers scrambled through the ruins in the provincial capital Portoviejo, digging with their hands to find survivors. As officials set up shelters and field hospitals, residents said they felt like their entire town had been flattened.

More than 3,000 packages of food and nearly 8,000 sleeping kits were being delivered. Electricity in Manabi province, the hardest-hit, remained mostly down as authorities focused on finding survivors.

"Compatriots: Unity, strength and prayer," Glas told a throng of residents gathered in the streets of Manta as he instructed them on how to look for survivors. "We need to be quiet so we can hear. We can't use heavy machinery because it can be very tragic for those who are injured."