Death toll in Ecuador earthquake rises to 350 with 2,068 injured
President Correa says 7.8 magnitude earthquake is ‘greatest tragedy in the last 67 years’
The death toll from Ecuador’s biggest earthquake in decades rose to 350 on Monday as traumatised survivors rested amid the rubble of their homes and rescuers dug for survivors in the Andean nation’s shattered coastal region.
The 7.8 magnitude quake struck off the Pacific coast on Saturday and was felt around the Andean nation of 16 million people, causing panic as far away as the highland capital Quito and destroying buildings, bridges and roads.
“Ecuador has been hit tremendously hard . . . This is the greatest tragedy in the last 67 years,” said a shaken president Rafael Correa, who rushed back to Ecuador from a visit to Italy. He said he feared the toll could rise even further.
“There are signs of life in much of the rubble and that is the priority,” Mr Correa said in a televised address to the nation.
He confirmed 350 deaths and 2,068 injured and said he feared those figures would increase.
Coastal areas nearest the epicentre were hit hardest, especially Pedernales, a rustic tourist spot with beaches and palm trees now laden with debris from pastel-coloured houses.
At one point, firefighters entered a partially destroyed house to search for three children and a man apparently trapped inside, as a crowd of 40 gathered in the darkness to watch.
“My little cousins are inside. Before, there were noises, screams. We must find them,“ pleaded Isaac (18) as the firemen combed the debris.
Tents sprung up in the town’s still-intact stadium to store bodies, treat the injured, and distribute water, food, and blankets to survivors. People wandered around with bruised limbs and bandaged cuts, while patients with more serious injuries were evacuated to hospitals.
Late into the night, firefighters clambered through the rubble and used jackhammers to break through concrete slabs potentially covering victims. Crowds looked on while others curled up for the night amid the debris.
Dazed residents recounted a violent shake, followed by a sudden collapse of buildings that trapped people in wreckage.
“You could hear people screaming from the rubble,” Agustin Robles said as he waited in a line of 40 people for water outside a stadium in Pedernales.
“There was a pharmacy where people were stuck and we couldn’t do anything.”
There were more than 200 aftershocks, mainly in the Pedernales area. A state of emergency was declared in six provinces.
The quake has piled pain on the economy of OPEC’s smallest member, already reeling from low oil prices, with economic growth this year projected at near-zero.
Rubble and rain
Survivors bundled up to spend the night next to their destroyed homes. Many had earlier queued up for food, water and blankets outside the blue-and-white stadium.
Inside the stadium, tents housed the dead and medical teams treated hundreds of survivors. About 91 people died in Pedernales and some 60 per cent of houses were destroyed, according to Police Chief General Milton Zarate.
“We heard the warning so luckily we were in the street because the entire house collapsed. We don’t have anything,” said Ana Farias (23), the mother of 16-month-old twins, as she collected water, food and blankets from rescuers.
“We’re going to have to sleep outside today.”
Other survivors hammered together shelters in empty lots. Police patrolled the dark town, where power remained off, while some rescuers carried on.
Locals used a small tractor to remove rubble and also searched with their hands for trapped people. Women cried after a corpse was pulled out.
In Portoviejo, about 180km south of Pedernales, authorities said some 130 inmates escaped from the El Rodeo prison after its walls collapsed. More than 35 have been recaptured.
In Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, rubble lay in the streets and a bridge had fallen on a car.
“It was horrible. It was as if it was going to collapse like cardboard,” said Galo Valle (56), who was guarding a building in the city where windows fell out and parts of walls broke.
“I prayed and fell to my feet to ask God to protect me.”
About 13,500 security force personnel were mobilised to keep order around Ecuador, and $600 million in credit from multilateral lenders was immediately activated for the emergency, the government said.
It has been decades since the government dealt with an earthquake of this magnitude. In a 1979 disaster, 600 people were killed and 20,000 injured, according to the US Geological Survey.
According to the country’s Geophysics Institute, 230 aftershocks have been registered after the subduction, an event in which one tectonic plate goes under another.
Venezuela, Chile and Mexico were sending personnel and supplies, the left-leaning Correa government said. The Ecuadorean Red Cross mobilised more than 800 volunteers and staff and medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said it was sending a team from Colombia.
It has been confirmed that a young Irish nun was killed. Sister Clare Theresa Crockett, aged 33 and originally from the Brandywell in Derry died in the earthquake.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter that two Canadians were among the dead and that the “scope of the devastation in Ecuador is shocking”. Jennifer Mawn (38) and her 12-year-old son, Arthur, died when the roof of their coastal residence collapsed.
The US State Department said in an email that it was working to confirm reports of Americans injured in the quake, although it had no reports of any US citizens killed.
US Secretary of State John Kerry offered assistance.
Although tsunami warnings were lifted, coastal residents were still urged to seek higher ground in case tides rise.
The government said oil production was not affected but closed its main refinery of Esmeraldas, located near the epicentre, as a precaution. It was likely to restart soon.
Residents on the Galapagos islands far off Ecuador’s coast, home to numerous rare species, said they had not been affected by the quake.
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 US Geological Survey large quakes separated by such distances would probably not be related.