SANTIAGO (Reuters) – A huge magnitude-8.8 earthquake struck Chile early on Saturday, killing at least 122 people, knocking down homes and hospitals, and triggering a tsunami that rolled menacingly across the Pacific.
Buildings caught fire, major highway bridges collapsed and wide cracks opened up in streets. A 15-storey building collapsed in the city of Concepcion, near the epicenter, and overturned cars lay scattered below a fallen overpass in the capital.
Chilean President-elect Sebastian Pinera said at least 122 people had died in the quake, which struck at 3:34 a.m. (1:34 a.m. EST), sending many people rushing outside in their pajamas.
“Unfortunately, Chile is a country of catastrophes,” Pinera said, adding the quake dealt a heavy blow to the country’s roads, airports and ports.
He said the death toll could still rise, but an emergency official said it was unlikely to increase dramatically.
Tsunami warnings were posted around the Pacific, including the U.S. state of Hawaii, Japan and Russia.
Telephone and power lines were down across large swathes of central Chile, making it difficult to assess the full extent of the damage close to the epicenter.
The South American country is the world’s No. 1 copper producer, and the quake halted operations at two major mines.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake struck 70 miles northeast of Concepcion at a depth of 22 miles.
The capital Santiago, about 200 miles north of the epicenter, was also badly hit. The international airport was closed for at least 24 hours as the quake destroyed passenger walkways and shook glass out of doors and windows.
“I thought I’d blown a tire … but then I saw the highway moving like it was a piece of paper and I realized it was something much worse,” said one man who was forced to abandon his car on a wrecked highway overpass.
Chile’s Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, suspended operations at its El Teniente and Andina mines, but reported no major damage and said it expected the mines to be up and running in the “coming hours.”
Production was halted at the Los Bronces and El Soldado copper mines, owned by Anglo American Plc, but Chile’s biggest copper mine, Escondida, was operating normally.
Chile produces about 34 percent of world supply of copper, which is used in electronics, cars and refrigerators.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said a huge wave hit the Juan Fernandez islands, and archipelago where Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned in the 18th century inspiring the novel Robinson Crusoe.
“There was a series of waves that got bigger and bigger, which gave people time to save themselves,” pilot Fernando Avaria told TVN television by telephone from the main island. Three people were killed and four missing there, he said.
Bachelet said residents were evacuated from coastal areas of Chile’s remote Easter Island, a popular tourist destination in the Pacific famous for its towering Moai stone statues.
Unusually big waves battered Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, where residents were moved to higher ground as a precaution.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a Pacific-wide tsunami warning for the U.S. state of Hawaii and countries as far away as Japan, Russia, Philippines, Indonesia and the South Pacific. French Polynesia was also put on alert.
“Chile probably got the brunt force of the tsunami already. So probably the worst has already happened in Chile,” said Victor Sardina, geophysicist at the warning center.
“The tsunami was pretty big too. We reported some places around 8 feet. And it’s quite possible it would be higher in other areas,” he added.
An earthquake of magnitude 8 or over can cause “tremendous damage,” the USGS says. The January 12 quake that devastated Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince was measured as magnitude 7.0.
In 1960, a massive earthquake in Chile generated waves that reached the Philippines in about 24 hours.
Local television showed a building in flames in Concepcion, one of Chile’s largest cities with around 670,000 inhabitants. Some residents looted pharmacies and a collapsed grains silo, hauling off bags of wheat, television images showed.
Broken glass and chunks of concrete and brick were strewn across roads and several strong aftershocks rattled jittery residents in the hours after the initial quake.
In the moments after the quake, people streamed onto the streets of the Chilean capital hugging each other and crying.
“My house is completely destroyed, everything fell over … it has been totally destroyed. Me and my wife huddled in a corner and after hours they rescued us,” said one elderly man in central Santiago.
There were blackouts in parts of Santiago. Emergency officials said buildings in the historic quarters of two southern cities, mainly made of adobe, had been badly damaged and local radio said three hospitals had partially collapsed.
In 1960, Chile was hit by the world’s biggest earthquake since records dating back to 1900. The 9.5 magnitude quake devastated the south-central city of Valdivia, killing 1,655 people and sending a tsunami that battered Easter Island 2,300 miles off Chile’s Pacific coast and continued as far as Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines.
Saturday’s quake shook buildings as far away as Argentina’s Andean provinces of Mendoza and San Juan. A series of strong aftershocks rocked Chile’s coastal region from Valdivia in the south to Valparaiso, about 500 miles to the north.
The United Nations and the White House said they were closely monitoring the situation in Chile and the potential threat of tsunamis in the Pacific.
“We stand ready to help (Chile) in this hour of need,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
A State Department official said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was being kept apprised of the situation in Chile, which she is due to visit on Tuesday on a Latin American tour.
(Additional reporting by Helen Popper, Kevin Gray and Guido Nejamkis in Buenos Aires, editing by Anthony Boadle)