Portoviejo (Ecuador), Apr 18: Rescuers in Ecuador burrowed through rubble where towns once stood in an increasingly desperate attempt to find survivors of an earthquake that killed at least 272 people and allowed scores of inmates to escape prison.
About 2,500 people were injured when the strong 7.8-magnitude quake hit on Saturday evening, bringing structures crashing down, Vice President Jorge Glas said. President Rafael Correa, who cut short a trip to the Vatican, landed back in the country close to the disaster zone late yesterday to inspect the devastation, his Twitter account said.
Although the oil-producing South American nation frequently suffers seismic shudders because of its position on the Pacific rim's Ring of Fire, the quake -- though it lasted just one minute -- was the worst in nearly 40 years in Ecuador.
The quake wrecked buildings, toppled power lines and sent terrified residents running from their homes when it struck a coastal zone popular with tourists.
Some 100 inmates in a prison in the western town of Portoviejo escaped when the quake shook their facility, Justice Minister Ledy Zuniga tweeted. About 30 of them had been recaptured, some had returned voluntarily and police were hunting for the others.
Elsewhere in hard-hit Portoviejo, the odor of decaying bodies started to fill the tropical air as rescuers raced to find survivors. "We have already recovered three dead and we believe there are 10 to 11 people still trapped," said one worker digging through the debris of what used to be a six-story hotel called El Gato.
Officials have declared a state of emergency in the worst-hit provinces, and a national state of "exception," both of which suspend certain civil rights and liberties to allow security forces and officials to react faster.
Also read: Powerful 7.8 earthquake rocks Ecuador
Among the worst-hit towns was Pedernales, where Mayor Gabriel Alcivar estimated there were up to 400 more dead yet to be confirmed, many under the rubble of hotels that collapsed.
"Pedernales is devastated. Buildings have fallen down, especially hotels where there are lots of tourists staying. There are lots of dead bodies," he told local media.
Soldiers patrolled the beach town, and the Red Cross and the army had set up a center to treat the injured and receive bodies.
Two Canadians were among those killed by the quake, their country's government told AFP. Ecuador's Geophysical Office reported "considerable" structural damage as far away as Guayaquil, Ecuador's biggest city with more than two million people, which is 350 kilometres away.