The quake reduced buildings to rubble, toppled power lines and sent terrified residents running from their homes when it struck the Pacific coast Saturday in a zone popular with tourists. Vice President Jorge Glas called it the "worst seismic movement we have faced in decades."
In a news conference on Sunday he raised the toll to 235 killed and 1,557 injured. The quake, felt across Ecuador, northern Peru and southern Colombia, struck at 6:58 local time Saturday evening (2358 GMT) and lasted about a minute. It was centered around 170 kilometers northwest of the capital Quito, the US Geological Survey (USGS) said.
Among the worst-hit towns was the Pedernales, whose mayor Gabriel Alcivar estimated there were up to 400 more dead yet to be confirmed, many under the rubble of some 40 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.
"We need help. We need medicine, water and food to help people." Two Canadians were among those killed by the quake, their country's government told AFP by email. Around the town of Portoviejo, the quake reduced houses to rubble, brought down a market and left streetlights and debris scattered.
"It was horrible, it is the first time I have felt an earthquake like this," resident Macontos Bibi, 57, told AFP. "I thought my house was going to collapse." Glas said 14,000 security forces, 241 medical staff and two mobile hospitals were being rushed to the most devastated areas, with reinforcements arriving from Colombia and Mexico.
In the town of Abdon Calderon near Portoviejo, 73-year-old resident Nelly, who would not give her last name, told AFP in tears that she rushed into the street after the quake and saw that the covered market had collapsed. "There was a person trapped who screamed for help, but then the screaming stopped.
Oh, it was terrible," she said. Ecuador's Geophysical Office reported "considerable" structural damage as far away as Guayaquil, Ecuador's biggest city with more than two million people.
The US Geological Survey (USGS) said the 7.8-magnitude quake struck near the northwest shore of Ecuador. Ecuador lies near a shifting boundary between plates of the earth's crust. It has suffered seven earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or higher in the region of Saturday's quake since 1900, the USGS said. One in March 1987 killed about 1,000 people, it said.