A devastating magnitude-8.8 earthquake struck Chile early today, shattering buildings and bridges, killing at least 122 people and setting off a tsunami that threatened every nation around the Pacific Ocean – roughly a quarter of the globe.
Chilean TV showed devastating images of the most powerful quake to hit the country in a half-century.
Tsunami waves up to 6ft (1.8m) high struck parts of French Polynesia, but no damage was immediately reported.
Residents were warned tsunamis can consist of several waves and they should remain vigilant.
Tonga and the Cook Islands were evacuating coastal areas as the waves were expected to hit later on Sunday morning.
Collapsed roads and bridges complicated north-south travel in Chile. Electricity, water and phone lines were cut to many areas.
Airport director Eduardo del Canto said Santiago’s airport will remain closed for at least 24 hours after the passenger terminal suffered major damage.
In the second city of Concepcion trucks plunged into the fractured earth, homes fell, bridges collapsed and buildings were engulfed in flames. Injured people lay in the streets or on stretchers.
Many roads were destroyed and electricity and water were cut to many areas.
There was still no word of death or damage from many outlying areas that were cut off by the quake that struck at 3.34am (6.34am Irish Time) 200 miles southwest of Santiago.
Experts warned that a tsunami could strike anywhere in the Pacific, and Hawaii could face its largest waves since 1964 starting at 9.19pm Irish Time, according to Charles McCreery, director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre.
Tsunami waves were likely to hit Asian, Australian and New Zealand shores within 24 hours of the earthquake. The US West Coast and Alaska, too, were threatened.
A huge wave swept into a populated area in the Robinson Crusoe Islands, 410 miles off the Chilean coast, president Michelle Bachelet said, but there were no immediate reports of major damage there.
Bachelet said the death toll was at 78 and rising, but officials had no information on the number of people injured. She declared a “state of catastrophe” in central Chile.
“We have had a huge earthquake, with some aftershocks,” Bachelet said from an emergency response centre. She urged Chileans not to panic.
“Despite this, the system is functioning. People should remain calm. We’re doing everything we can with all the forces we have. Any information we will share immediately,” she said.
Powerful aftershocks rattled Chile’s coast – 21 of them magnitude 5 or greater and one reaching magnitude 6.9 – the US Geological Survey reported.
Bachelet urged people to avoid travelling, since traffic lights are down, to avoid causing more fatalities.
The airport for Chile’s capital of Santiago airport was shut down and will remain closed for at least the next 24 hours, airport director Eduardo del Canto said. The passenger terminal suffered major damage, he told Chilean television in a telephone interview. TV images show smashed windows, partially collapsed ceilings and pedestrian walkways destroyed.
In Concepcion, nurses and residents pushed some of the injured through the streets on stretchers. Others walked around in a daze wrapped in blankets, some carrying infants in their arms.
The epicentre was just 70 miles from Concepcion, where more than 200,000 people live along the Bio Bio river, and 60 miles from the ski town of Chillan, a gateway to Andean ski resorts that was destroyed in a 1939 earthquake.
The quake also shook buildings in Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires, 900 miles away on the Atlantic side of South America.
Marco Vidal – a programme director for Grand Circle Travel who was travelling with a group of 34 Americans – was on the 19th floor of the Crown Plaza Santiago hotel when the quake struck.
“All the things start to fall. The lamps, everything, was going on the floor. And it was moving like from south to north, oscillated. I felt terrified,” he said.
Cynthia Iocono, from Linwood, Pennsylvania, said she first thought the quake was a train.
“But then I thought, oh, there’s no train here. And then the lamps flew off the dresser and my TV flew off onto the floor and crashed.”
“It was scary, but there really wasn’t any panic. Everybody kind of stayed orderly and looked after one another,” Iocono said.
In Santiago, modern buildings are built to withstand earthquakes, but many older ones were heavily damaged, including the Nuestra Senora de la Providencia church, whose bell tower collapsed. An apartment building’s two-storey car parking also flattened onto the ground floor, smashing about 50 cars whose alarms and horns rang incessantly. A bridge just outside the capital also collapsed, and at least one car flipped upside down.
The quake struck after concert-goers had left South America’s leading music festival in the coastal city of Vina del Mar, but it caught people leaving a disco. “It was very bad, people were screaming, some people were running, others appeared paralysed. I was one of them,” , Julio Alvarez told Radio Cooperativa in Santiago.
Bachelet said she was declaring a “state of catastrophe” in three central regions of the country.
She said Chile had not asked for assistance from other countries.
Several hospitals were evacuated due to earthquake damage, she said.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre called for “urgent action to protect lives and property” in Hawaii, which is among 53 nations and territories subject to tsunami warnings.
“Sea level readings indicate a tsunami was generated. It may have been destructive along coasts near the earthquake epicentre and could also be a threat to more distant coasts,” the warning centre said. It did not expect a tsunami along the west of the US or Canada but was continuing to monitor the situation.
The largest earthquake ever recorded struck the same area of Chile on May 22, 1960. The magnitude-9.5 quake killed 1,655 people and left two million homeless. The tsunami that it caused killed people in Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines and caused damage to the west coast of the US.
It was the strongest quake to hit Chile since a magnitude-9.5 quake rocked southern Chile in 1960. Together with an ensuing tsunami, it killed at least 1,716 people.