An earthquake damaged thousands of houses, blocked roads and knocked out electricity across northern Chile. Authorities reported at least two deaths and more than 150 injuries.
The 7.7 magnitude quake, centered in Chile's Atacama desert near the village of Quillagua, was so strong it was felt on the other side of the continent in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Scientists were trying to determine how such an intense earthquake apparently did not cause more damage.
"It was incredible. I thought my last day had come when I saw the mountain shaking under a large cloud of dust," said Maria Ines Palete, a resident of Quillagua, which lies in the foothills of the Andes mountains.
The quake, which struck around midday on Wednesday with an epicenter 1,260km north of Santiago, was followed by several aftershocks, including three larger than magnitude 5, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS).
Hardest hit were the towns of Maria Elena and Tocopilla.
In Tocopilla, 100 houses were destroyed and another 2,500 -- or 40 percent of the city's total -- were damaged, said presidential spokesman Ricardo Lagos Weber.
Cristian Castillo, a doctor at the hospital in Tocopilla, said that around 80 percent of the hospital was "useless."
Patients were being evacuated and the government said that a military hospital was being set up in the city.
Early yesterday, electricity was restored in large areas of Tocopilla.
Hundreds of people were sleeping in their cars or in front of their damaged homes.
Officials said some people refused to go shelters fearing their homes would be looted if they were left unguarded.
Two women were killed in Tocopilla when their houses collapsed, authorities said. Hospital director Juan Urrutia said that 117 people were treated after the quake for injuries or panic.
Lagos Weber said that about 170 people were taken to hospitals throughout the affected region, but that many of the injuries were not very serious.
Chile's government said it was flying 500 emergency houses to Tocopilla and that they should be installed yesterday morning.
Medicine and food were also being sent, he said.
In Maria Elena, 1,200 homes were damaged -- or 70 percent of the city's total, Lagos Weber said. Residents were still without running water, electricity and telephone service late on Wednesday.
"I was at work and came home after the quake to find that I no longer have a house," said Julio Lopez, a Maria Elena resident.
At the badly damaged Lautaro restaurant in Maria Elena, a dozen men drank beer by candlelight.
"What else can I do? I lost everything. So I'll just have a few drinks," said Samuel Araya, a 57-year-old miner in this town of 7,000 people, which was once a nitrate mining center.
Residents gathered in the darkened main plaza to talk about the earthquake.
Blanca Pizarro said she took refuge under her kitchen table when the earthquake struck and seconds later the roof collapsed on the table.
"I'm alive by a miracle," she said.
Chile's largest copper mines are in the quake area and production was halted as electric power was cut for several hours.
But Codelco, which operates some of the largest mines, said the situation was back to normal by the end of the day.
Chile is the world's largest producer of copper.
About 10 road workers were trapped near Tocopilla when a section of a tunnel they were repairing collapsed, but all were in good condition and rescuers were working to free them, according to the government's emergency bureau.