SANTIAGO, Chile — Much of Chile awoke to a living nightmare early Saturday morning as a magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck the central part of the country, leveling bridges, flattening homes and killing at least 150 people.
The quake is one of the largest ever recorded and the death toll is expected to rise, especially in the southern city of Concepcion, located some 50 miles southwest of the epicenter in the Bio Bio Region.
The quake, which struck at 3:34 a.m., lasted an alarming two minutes and rocked most of the country, including Santiago, home to roughly a third of Chile’s 16 million inhabitants.
“There was nowhere to get away from it,” said Stephen Lynch, an American who has lived in Santiago for the past three years. “It was surprising how long it went on. We’re guessing like two minutes. It sounds like a cliche, but it really seemed like it went on for about an hour.”
In Santiago, roughly 200 miles north of the epicenter, windows shattered in many downtown buildings. Several structures collapsed as others shed chunks of concrete and plaster. In the northern part of the capital, the quake ignited a huge chemical fire that left the city obscured by thick smog normally associated with the Santiago winter.
Marcelo, who works as an informal car parker in front of downtown Santiago’s public emergency hospital, described the scene as pure chaos. “Things are very tense inside,” he said, indicating the emergency room. “There are a lot of people: people who’ve been struck by walls, who’ve had walls fall on top of them. Or hit by rocks, trees. Some people jumped out of their apartments. At about 4 a.m. they were just shouting. People were desperate, crying, wailing.”
Electricity was down until midday in Santiago, where many residents, unnerved by rolling aftershocks that continue to rattle the country, spent the early morning hours in the pitch-black streets with just cell phones for light. Battery-powered transistor radios provided the only source of information for people who, with phone service also temporarily cut, had virtually no idea how the quake had affected the rest of the country.
“This was more fierce than the previous quakes,” said Jose Emilio Ortiz, an elderly Santiago resident who experienced two huge earthquakes in 1985. “That building in front just turned to rubber. All the windows broke. I thought this was it, because it just didn’t stop.”
News has been slow to filter in from the Bio Bio Region, whose capital, Concepcion, is home to some 700,000 residents and appears to have been Chile’s hardest hit city. News outlets were reporting that some 60 residents there remained trapped in a collapsed building. Fires are burning throughout Concepcion, which also lost its principal bridge.
President Michelle Bachelet, who is set to leave office in less than two weeks, declared much of Chile — from Valparaiso (northwest of Santiago) to the southern Araucania region — a catastrophe zone. As of 4:30 p.m. local time, the official death toll was 147, according to Chile’s National Emergency Office. Three people disappeared and are presumed dead on the Juan Fernandez Islands, which were hit by massive waves that flooded huge swaths of the offshore territory.
“All I can say is that it was horrible,” Victoria Hermosilla Silva, a resident in the Bio Bio city Santa Barabara, said by telephone. “The only think was the world was ending. It was terrible. There have been earthquakes before in this country, but like this? I think everybody thought the same thing, that our time had come.”
(Photos of downtown Santiago by Benjamin Witte/GlobalPost)
Read more about the earthquake:
Chile earthquake: a GlobalPost roundup
Central America: hard waves but no tsunami after Chile earthquake
Chile earthquake kicks homeless off the street
Chile quake: Locals with guns stand guard in Concepcion
Opinion: Repairing Chile is a matter for the state
Chile quake: Uncertainty reigns in southern Chile