Aftershocks were rolling through Ecuador late Sunday and people were settling in to sleep outside for the second night in a row as rescue workers struggled to find survivors of the nation’s strongest earthquake in decades.
Saturday night’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake left at least 246 dead, and more than 2,500 injured as it leveled homes, hotels and bridges. But those numbers are likely to rise in the coming hours and days.
“We haven’t seen this kind of damage in decades,” Vice President Jorge Glas said after touring sections of the country.
Hitting near the coastal city of Pedernales, about 105 miles northwest of Quito, the quake was threatening to evolve into one of the most serious natural disasters in recent years.
On Sunday night, Portoviejo, another hard-hit town, was still being rocked by aftershocks, said Jennifer Arroyo, 37. She said government offices, a hotel, a church, a grocery store and a medical clinic had all collapsed. The six-story social security building, known as the IESS, was completely demolished.
“It looks like a war zone,” she said. “I really don’t want to be here. … The earth is still shaking.”
Pleas for help
As the administration scrambled to coordinate relief efforts, social-media sites buzzed with people announcing they were safe, seeking loved ones and begging for help.
“In Pedernales people are digging out the wreckage with their hands,” wrote a housing collective called Palosanto. “We urgently need machinery (bulldozers and dump trucks). There are people who are still alive.”
Earlier in the day, Glas tried to explain to desperate family members that it was too dangerous to send heavy machinery into some neighborhoods for fear of crushing survivors.
“First, we must rescue the injured. And then, as hard as it is, take care of our sick and then comes reconstruction,” he said.
He also warned people against entering damaged homes to rescue material goods.
The latest reports put the death toll at 246, but it’s likely to rise.
The quake, which hit shortly before 8 p.m. EDT Saturday, was felt as far away as neighboring Colombia. The three hardest-hit communities appear to be Pedernales, Portoviejo and Manta. In Manta, more than 120 miles from the epicenter, the air-traffic control tower at the international airport was toppled.
In the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, at least six homes collapsed and the city was plunged into darkness for a few hours. In Guayaquil, the country’s largest city, an overpass fell onto a car, killing one person.
This wasn’t just a house that collapsed, it was an entire town.
Gabriel Alcivar, mayor Pedernales
President Rafael Correa, who was in Rome, cut his trip short and was expected to land in Manta on Sunday night.
“Public safety is under control, shelters are being prepared. The country is mobilized,” he wrote on Twitter before boarding the flight home. “Thanks to the world for its solidarity.”
Along with more than 14,000 police and soldiers in Ecuador, first-aid workers and rescue dogs were coming in from neighboring countries, including Colombia and Venezuela.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was monitoring the situation and in close contact with Ecuadorian authorities.
“We stand by the people of Ecuador in this difficult time and are ready to assist in any way we can,” he said in a statement.
Ecuador will be dipping into a $300 million contingency fund to finance the recovery, Glas said, and international aid groups, including Catholic Relief Services, began collecting donations for the country. The administration is also asking for donations of food, water, tents and insect repellent.
A state of emergency has been declared in six provinces. Classes, concerts and events have been canceled, and public offices will be closed to focus on finding survivors.
Aerial images of Pedernales showed buildings near the central plaza in rubble. And locals told state-run television they could hear voices beneath the debris.
“We’re trying to do the most we can, but there’s almost nothing we can do,” Gabriel Alcivar, the mayor of Pedernales, told The Associated Press. “This wasn’t just a house that collapsed, it was an entire town.”
The government said it had controlled looting, which broke out in some of the hardest-hit areas. Describing the scene in one Pedernales mall, local media said “there’s not a single thing left on a coat hanger.”
Alberto Reynas, 58, was fishing off the city’s coast when giant waves violently rocked his boat.
“It felt the same on sea as it did on land,” he told the AP.
But he was shaken again when he found the facade of his two-story home had fallen off into the streets.
“It’s pure sadness. Everything is destroyed,” he said.
Despite the damage, the government said key pieces of infrastructure had been spared, including the nation’s two major oil pipelines and its hydroelectric dams.
Ecuador has a long history of earthquakes, including seven that have topped 7 on the Richter scale since 1900, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In 1906, an 8.3-magnitude earthquake struck near the same area as Saturday’s quake, producing a tsunami that led to an estimated 500 to 1,500 deaths. A 7.2 earthquake in 1987, also near the same area, killed an estimated 1,000 people.
In the coastal city of Esmeraldas, just north of the epicenter, Omar Estupiñan said the entire city seemed to sway and that electricity and telecommunications were out Saturday night.
“Everybody was sleeping on the streets because we were too scared to go inside,” he said. The city’s mayor said there were at least two confirmed deaths and that a handful of homes had collapsed.
Despite the ongoing aftershocks, Estupiñan said he wouldn’t be outdoors Sunday night.
“I’m going to sleep in my own house,” he said, “and let God decide what he what he wants to do with me.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report