About 10,000 troops and 4,600 police were deployed to search for survivors following the powerful earthquake in Ecuador, with Rafael Correa, the country’s president, saying on Sunday night that the death toll had risen to 272.
“I fear that number will increase as we continue removing rubble,” Mr Correa said in a televised address on Sunday night, adding that he still hoped to find survivors under the debris.
A magnitude 7.8 quake struck on Saturday night off the country’s coast about 200km from the capital Quito, causing widespread damage to local communities. It came only a day after a 7.3 magnitude quake hit Japan on the other side of the Pacific.
Mr Correa said the tremor was “the worst tragedy in 67 years”, in a reference to the Ambato earthquake of 1949, which killed thousands.
The president declared a national emergency and cut short a visit to Rome, as he urged Ecuadoreans to stay strong while authorities handled the disaster.
Jorge Glas, deputy president, said earlier that more than 2,500 people had been injured. The ministry for the interior said search dogs were being used to collaborate in the rescue of the missing.
Gabriel Alcívar, mayor of Pedernales, an area of 55,000 people close to the quake’s epicentre, pleaded for authorities to send earthmoving machines and emergency rescue workers as roads were cracked and several buildings in the town were flattened, trapping residents among the rubble.
“Pedernales is totally devastated,” he told local television. “This wasn’t just a house that collapsed, it was an entire town.”
People from the town thronged to the football stadium, which is being used both as a morgue and a place to tend the injured.
Angélica Gorozabel, who was looking for her daughter and cousin, said: “I couldn’t find them. I have to keep looking elsewhere.”
Officials said help was arriving from Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela. Operating with emergency equipment, an aircraft from Venezuela with humanitarian aid was able to land at Manta after the control tower collapsed during the quake and the airport was closed.
Mobile hospitals were being established to cope with the injured and government ministers reported that authorities were working to re-establish electricity across the country. Fixed line internet services were operating, as undersea cables had not been affected.
Ecuador’s Geophysics Institute described “considerable damage” in the area of the epicentre and in the country’s largest city, Guayaquil. The coastal area of Pedernales was rattled by 135 aftershocks, the institute said.
In Quito, residents said they felt the quake for almost a minute which reportedly left parts of the city without power or telephone service. “The earthquake was felt strongly,” said Elena Ruiz, a non-governmental organisation worker based in the capital.
“I rushed down eight stories, trembling, my whole body was shaking.” She said the usually calm streets of her leafy neighbourhood were packed with shocked and confused residents.
The governor of the city of Esmeraldas told El Telégrafo newspaper that 71 houses had been knocked down, while the mayor of Muisne said on television that 180 homes were completely destroyed there.
In Manta, where many hotels reportedly collapsed, local station Teleamazonas showed images of a desperate father yelling into a hole in a pile of rubble as he searched for five of his nine family members. “Four already came out, three alive and one girl died,” he said.
In Portoviejo, south-east of Manta, a sobbing survivor, Vanessa Santos told the Ecuavisa TV network that her family was “buried under” a store but that was still looking for her baby. “I need to find my baby, it’s been five hours since he disappeared.”
The US Geological Service said “seven magnitude or greater earthquakes have occurred within 250km of this event since 1900”. The earthquake was also reportedly felt in parts of southern Colombia and northern Peru.
Ecuador’s government did not issue a tsunami alert, and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said the “tsunami threat has now largely passed”.
Should the quake prove particularly devastating, reconstruction efforts could put further strain on an economy forecast by the IMF to shrink 4.5 per cent in this year amid lower oil prices. Production at the Esmeraldas oil refinery, which processes 110,000 barrels per day, was halted.
“This is a terrible tragedy,” says Ramiro Crespo, a Quito-based economist and banker. “And it’s timing cannot be worse for Ecuador.”
Ecuador is Opec’s smallest member. Mr Correa said that $600m in credit from multilateral lenders, including the World Bank, was activated to tackle the emergency.