A powerful earthquake shook Peru's central coast, terrifying the capital's residents and killing at least 337 people in cities farther south, Health Minister Carlos Vallejos said early yesterday. More than 1,000 others were injured, he said.
The 7.9 magnitude quake struck at 6:40pm on Wednesday about 145km southeast of Lima at a depth of about 40km, the US Geological Survey said. Four strong aftershocks ranging from magnitudes of 5.4 to 5.9 were felt afterward.
The quake held Lima in its grip and shook it furiously for more than two minutes, longer than any time in recent memory in this quake-prone Andean nation.
President Alan Garcia declared an emergency zone in the region of Ica, 265km southeast of the capital.
Deputy Health Minister Jose Calderon called the situation there "dramatic." Seventeen people were killed when a church collapsed in the city of Ica, home to 650,000 people, cable news station Canal N said. Seventy more people were reported injured in that incident.
The government rushed police, soldiers, doctors and aid to Ica, but an APTN cameraman trying to reach the city reported that traffic was paralyzed on the Pan American Highway by huge cracks in the asphalt and fallen power lines. He said hundreds of vehicles were backed up. Unconfirmed news reports said a bridge just north of the city had also collapsed.
Ica was blacked out as were smaller towns along the coast south of Lima. Residents of Chincha, a small town 150km southeast of Lima, reported the walls of homes had fallen in and many houses were damaged. The reports said many people had been hurt by falling bricks and broken glass.
An APTN cameraman who reached Chincha said the floors of the local hospital were covered with bodies of the dead.
Calderon urged Peruvians to donate blood for the injured and said a convoy of doctors and nurses was headed to the Ica area. News reports said dozens of people were crowding hospitals in the city seeking help even though the hospitals had cracks and other structural damage.
In Lima firefighters said lampposts collapsed and windows shattered across the metropolitan area of 8 million. Hundreds of workers were evacuated from office buildings and remained outside in the streets.
Garcia said public schools would be closed yesterday because the buildings may be unsafe.
An Associated Press photographer said that old houses had collapsed in the center of Lima and that many people had fled into the streets for safety.
"This is the strongest earthquake I've ever felt," said Maria Pilar Mena, a 47-year-old sandwich vendor in Lima. "When the quake struck, I thought it would never end."
Antony Falconi, 27, a graphic arts administrator, was desperately trying to get public transportation home as hundreds of people milled on the streets flagging down buses in the dark.
"Who isn't going to be frightened?" Falconi said. "The earth moved differently this time. It made waves and the earth was like jelly."
The quake also knocked out telephone and mobile phone service in the capital and to the provinces, making it impossible to communicate with the Ica area.
Firefighters were called to put out a fire in a shopping center. State doctors called off a national strike that began on Wednesday to handle the emergency.
Police reported that large boulders shook loose from hills and were blocking the country's Central Highway, which heads east into the Andes mountains.
Authorities issued a tsunami warning for Latin America's Pacific coast but later canceled it when the wave measured only 20cm to 30cm.
The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning for the coasts of Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama. A tsunami watch was issued for the rest of Central America and Mexico, along with an advisory for Hawaii.
The center canceled all the alerts about two hours later, but said the quake had caused the small tsunami near the epicenter.