Pedernales, Ecuador: The death toll from Ecuador’s biggest earthquake in decades soared to 262 on Sunday as survivors cobbled together makeshift coffins to bury loved ones, lined up for water and sought shelter beside the rubble of their shattered homes.
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.
President Rafael Correa rushed home from a trip to Italy to supervise the emergency. “The immediate priority is to rescue people in the rubble," he said on Twitter.
“Everything can be rebuilt but lives cannot be recovered and that’s what hurts the most," Correa told state radio.
The government said 262 people were killed and up to 2,500 injured, according to the latest tallies on Sunday evening.
Coastal areas nearest the epicenter were hit hardest, especially Pedernales, a rustic tourist spot with beaches and palm trees now laden with debris from pastel-coloured houses.
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."
Authorities said there were more than 160 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, rain, darkness
As darkness set in and rain began, 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% 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 plowed 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 Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, rubble lay in the streets and a bridge fell on top of 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 mobilized to keep order around Ecuador, and $600 million in credit from multilateral lenders was immediately activated for the emergency, the government said.
Ramon Solorzano, 46, a car parts merchant in the coastal city of Manta, headed away from built-up areas with his family. Photos from Manta showed Red Cross workers arriving, police hunting through debris, a smashed sculpture, injured people receiving treatment under tents in front of a hospital, and badly damaged buildings.
“Most people are out in the streets with backpacks on, heading for higher ground," Solorzano said, speaking in a trembling voice on a WhatsApp phone call. “The streets are cracked. The power is out and phones are down."
Refinery shut, Galapagos unscathed
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 US Geological Survey.
In international aid, Venezuela, Chile and Mexico were sending personnel and supplies, the left-leaning Correa government said. The Ecuadorean Red Cross mobilized more than 800 volunteers and staff and medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said it was sending a team from Colombia.
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."
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 epicenter, 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.