Feb 28, 2010 1:41 PM by MSNBC

UPDATE: Death toll tops 700 in Chile earthquake

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet says the death toll has now reached 708 dead.

Rescuers edged their way toward residents trapped in a toppled apartment block early Sunday and survivors huddled around bonfires in the rubble of their homes as the death toll in Chile continued to rise after one of the strongest earthquakes in history.

Thousands of Chileans fearful of aftershocks camped outside in towns shattered by the tremors, as officials struggled to grasp the scale of damage to transport, energy and housing infrastructure.

Government-run television reported that 1.5 million homes had been destroyed or declared unsafe.

One of the world's most powerful earthquakes in a century hammered Chile early Saturday, toppling buildings and triggering a tsunami that surged across the Pacific to as far as Japan and Russia.

The wave killed several people on a Chilean island but caused little damage in other countries, after precautionary evacuations of hundreds of thousands of people.

While the apparently low death toll could be considered a lucky escape from such a strong temblor, the quake dealt a serious blow to infrastructure in one of Latin America's most stable economies.

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.

Police said more than 100 people died in Concepcion, the largest city near the epicenter with more than 200,000 people. The university was among the buildings that caught fire around the city as gas and power lines snapped. Many streets were littered with rubble from edifices, inmates escaped from a nearby prison and police warned that criminals had been robbing banks.

Police and military personnel used tear gas to keep hundreds of looters away from a supermarket, where people left with shopping carts full of goods.

The largest single damage involved a newly opened 11-story building that toppled backward, trapping an estimated 60 people inside apartments where the floors suddenly became vertical and the contents of every room slammed down onto rear walls.

"It fell at the moment the earthquake began," said 4th Lt. Juan Schulmeyer of Concepcion's 7th Firefighter Company, pointing to where the foundation collapsed. A full 24 hours later, only 16 people had been pulled out alive, and six bodies had been recovered.

Rescuers heard a woman call out at 11 p.m. Saturday from what seemed like the 6th floor, but hours later they were making slow progress in reaching her. Rescuers were working with two power saws and an electric hammer on a generator, but their supply of gas was running out and it was taking them a frustrating hour and a half to cut each hole through the concrete.

"It's very difficult working in the dark with aftershocks, and inside it's complicated. The apartments are totally destroyed. You have to work with great caution," said Paulo Klein, who was leading a group of rescue specialists from Puerto Montt. They flew in on an air force plane with just the equipment they could carry. Heavy equipment was coming later along with 12 other rescuers.

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) on Saturday. 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.

"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," Santiago resident Dolores Cuevas said.

Tsunami waves killed at least four people on Chile's Juan Fernandez islands and caused serious damage to the port town of Talcahuano.

'Enormous quantity of damage'
On the other side of the Pacific, Japan's northeastern coast registered waves of up to 4 feet.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines and Russia's far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula were told to evacuate after the quake but there were no reports of damage.

Two million people in Chile have been affected by the earthquake, said President Michelle Bachelet, adding that it would take officials several days to evaluate the "enormous quantity of damage." She declared a "state of catastrophe" in central Chile.

The earthquake has raised a daunting first challenge for billionaire Sebastian Pinera, who was elected Chile's president in January in a shift to the political right and who takes office in two weeks.

"We're preparing ourselves for an additional task, a task that wasn't part of our governing plan: assuming responsibility for rebuilding our country," Pinera said late Saturday. "It's going to be a very big task and we're going to need resources."

The government faces the task of helping Chileans rebuild an estimated half a million homes that were severely damaged as well as hundreds of buckled roads and collapsed bridges.

"It was like the end of the world," said Vicente Acuna, 76, in the southern town of Talca.

More than 100 aftershocks were reported in the hours after the quake.

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.

In the mainland coastal town of Vichato, in the BioBio region, waves flooded hundreds of houses. Tsunami waves also swept into the port town of Talcahuano, causing serious damage to port facilities and lifting fishing boats out of the water, local television reported.

ADN Radio reported many beach towns were wiped out, including Matanzas, a wind- and kite-surfing destination that attracts many foreigners.

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.

Scientists say the quake was a "megathrust" - similar to the 2004 Indian Ocean temblor that spawned a catastrophic tsunami.

Megathrust earthquakes occur in subduction zones where plates of the Earth's crust grind and dive. Saturday's jolt occurred when the Nazca plate dove beneath the South American plate, releasing tremendous energy.

In 1960, Chile was hit by the world's biggest earthquake since records dating back to 1900. The 9.5-magnitude quake devastated the south-central city of Valdivia, killing more than 1,600 people and sending a tsunami that battered Easter Island 2,300 miles off Chile's Pacific coast and continued as far as Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines.



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