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Huge quake kills 214 in Chile, triggers Pacific tsunami

27 lutego, 2010

One of the largest earthquakes on record struck central Chile hard Saturday killing at least 214 people, leaving a trail of twisted buildings and sending tsunami waves roaring across the Pacific Ocean.

Highways in this South American nation of 16 million were sliced to pieces, bridges toppled and buildings reduced to rubble after the pre-dawn 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck some 325 kilometers (200 miles) southwest of the capital Santiago.

\"This is a catastrophe of immense proportions, so it will be very difficult to give precise figures,\" Interior Minister Edmundo Perez Yoma said, numbering the dead at 214, though officials warned the toll would likely rise.

Giant waves nearly 2.5 meters (eight feet) high crashed into the Chilean coast after the quake struck at 3:34 am (0634 GMT) and tore out into the Pacific, killing at least five people in the remote Robinson Crusoe islands.

Chronology: Major quakes and tsunamis

About 50 countries and territories along an arc stretching from New Zealand to Japan braced for giant waves, five years after the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster that killed more than 220,000 people.

The ominous sound of evacuation sirens blared in Hawaii, French Polynesia and the South Pacific as a tsunami raced around the \"Ring of Fire\", but there were no immediate reports of casualties further afield.

The massive quake plunged much of the Chilean capital Santiago into darkness, snapping power lines, severing communications. The international airport was closed after sustaining significant damage to the terminal.

It was the second major earthquake to hit the Western hemisphere in seven weeks after more than 200,000 people were killed in Haiti last month by a 7.0-magnitude quake.

Related article: Chilean Olympians stunned by quake

Many Chileans were still in nightclubs partying at the start of the weekend when the quake struck before dawn, ripping up roads, bringing roofs crashing down and toppling power lines.

\"It was the worst experience of my life,\" said 22-year-old Sebastian, standing outside his house in eastern Santiago.

AFP journalists spoke of walls and masonry collapsing in Santiago while people in pyjamas fled onto the streets as buildings \"shook like jelly.\" Related article: Panic in the streets of Chile

\"Friends who were at clubs said it was pandemonium,\" said Santiago resident Maren Andrea Jimenez, an American expert working for the United Nations.

\"It was scary! Plaster began falling from the ceiling. My dogs freaked out.\"

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet surveyed the worst of the damage by plane, flying over devastated areas near Chile\'s second city of Concepcion in the central Maule region.

President Barack Obama said the United States \"stands ready to assist in the rescue and recovery efforts, and we have resources that are positioned to deploy should the Chilean government ask for our help.\"

\"Early indications are that hundreds of lives have been lost in Chile and damage is severe. On behalf of the American people, Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the Chilean people,\" he said at the White House.

Despite officials saying up to 1.5 million homes could be affected, Chile\'s Foreign Minister Mariano Fernandez asked countries that had offered aid to hold off until local authorities could assess the emergency needs.

Chile does not want \"aid from anywhere to be a distraction\" from disaster relief, Fernandez said, adding: \"Any aid that arrives without having been determined to be needed really helps very little.\"

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, due to leave Sunday on a Latin American tour that includes Chile, said she was in close contact with Bachelet and that \"our thoughts and prayers\" went out to the victims.

The European Union said it would provide three million euros (four million dollars) in immediate assistance. Unlike Haiti, struck by a devastating earthquake last month, Chile is one of Latin America\'s wealthiest countries.

The US Geological Survey said it had recorded more than 51 aftershocks ranging from 4.9 to 6.9 since the quake. A second 6.0-magnitude quake, said to be an entirely separate event killed two people in neighboring Argentina.

Asian nations have been on heightened alert ever since the massive 2004 tsunami. In the low-lying Philippines, officials warned residents to be ready to evacuate and the Japanese government was on standby to help.

Earthquake-prone Chile lies along the Pacific rim of fire and is regularly rocked by quakes, but damage is often limited as they mostly hit in remote desert regions. Chile: a seismic hot spot

In May 1960 between 2,200 to 5,700 people were killed in the 9.5-mganitude Great Chilean Earthquake, which triggered a huge tsunami that reached as far as eastern New Zealand.