Rescuers braved aftershocks yesterday to pull bodies from the rubble and search for survivors after Peru's most devastating earthquake in nearly four decades left at least 500 dead.
Wednesday's mammoth earthquake wrought untold destruction -- especially along Peru's southern coast, which accounted for the greatest number of casualties.
One official estimate put the number of dead at around 500, although that figure was likely to climb sharply as rescuers continued to retrieve corpses from collapsed buildings.
"The toll has jumped to between 500 and 510 dead and 1,600 injured," said Roberto Ocno, the head of the country's firefighter service.
"There are dead trapped under houses," he said. "There are several bodies in the streets, people who may have died from heart attacks."
Civil defense authorities offered a somewhat lower toll, saying some 437 people had died and 829 had been injured.
The US Geological Survey upgraded the quake to a rare 8.0 on the Moment Magnitude scale, as the Peruvian government said helicopters and planes were airlifting emergency aid to the hard-hit coastal towns.
Peruvian President Alan Garcia, while visiting the stricken area on Thursday, declared three days of national mourning for the earthquake victims, closing all public buildings including schools, military bases and museums.
The powerful quake cut a path of devastation throughout southern Peru.
Buildings collapsed, major highways to the coast were ripped apart and power lines knocked out by the quake, leaving overwhelmed local officials issuing urgent appeals for help.
"We have hundreds of dead lying in the streets, and injured people in the hospital. It is totally indescribable," Pisco Mayor Juan Mendoza said.
"Seventy percent of the town is devastated," Mendoza said.
"We don't have water, no communications, the houses are collapsed, the churches are destroyed," he said.
Rescuers on Thursday pulled six survivors from the church of San Clemente that collapsed during a funeral mass packed with mourners. Many dead were still believed to be lying under the rubble.
Some 50 corpses lay on a Pisco sidewalk covered with blankets as shocked survivors numbly surveyed the scene.
Elsewhere in Peru, the quake claimed two lives in Lima from heart attacks as tens of thousands spent the night on the streets fearing more tremors.
Tsunamis flooded fishing villages on the Paracas bay, causing some damage, locals said.
And in Chincha, some 600 inmates fled the local penitentiary after the quake struck, authorities said.
Embassies in Lima were concerned about the death of foreign nationals in Paracas, a popular tourist spot near Pisco that has been cut off since the earthquake struck.
Already shredded nerves were kept in a state of constant anxiety as more than 300 aftershocks, some as powerful as 6.3 on the Moment Magnitude scale, shook Peru after the main earthquake.
Aftershocks "can last up to three weeks" after a quake of Wednesday's magnitude, said Hernan Talavera of the Geophysical Institute of Peru.
The Peruvian Red Cross sent an team overland from Lima that took seven hours to reach Pisco instead of the usual two.
The UN said it was ready to help and the Geneva-based International Federation of the Red Cross said it sent two planes loaded with relief supplies for the earthquake victims.
Foreign governments and aid groups launched relief efforts, including the US, Canada, Spain, Italy and France. Peru's neighbors have also mobilized including Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Chile.
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