The death toll from Ecuador's biggest earthquake in decades soared to at least 235 yesterday as rescuers using tractors and bare hands hunted desperately for survivors in shattered coastal towns.
The 7.8 magnitude quake struck off the Pacific coast on Saturday and was felt around the Andean nation of 16 million people, causing panic as far away as the highland capital Quito and collapsing buildings and roads in a swath of western towns.
President Rafael Correa rushed home from a trip to Italy to supervise the emergency. "The immediate priority is to rescue people in the rubble," he said. "Everything can be rebuilt, but lives cannot be recovered, and that's what hurts the most."
Visiting the quake zone, Vice President Jorge Glas said 235 had died and more than 1,500 people were injured.
Coastal areas nearest the epicenter were worst affected, especially Pedernales, a rustic tourist spot with beaches and palm trees, which appeared largely flattened.
"There are people trapped in various places, and we are starting rescue operations," Glas said.
Authorities said there were 163 aftershocks, mainly in the Pedernales area. A state of emergency was declared in six provinces.
The quake has piled pain on the economy of OPEC's smallest member, already reeling from low oil prices, with economic growth this year projected at near-zero. It has also propelled Glas - a possible candidate in Ecuador's February 2017 presidential election - into the limelight.
One photo on social media purporting to be the entrance to Pedernales showed a torn-up road with a crushed car in the middle and people standing behind.
Local TV station Televicentro broadcast images from Pedernales showing locals using a small tractor to remove rubble and also searching with their hands for people buried underneath.
Women cried after a corpse was pulled out. Locals said children were trapped.
One man begged for help: "Pedernales is destroyed."
Many people spent the night on the streets.
Enner Munoz, 40, a teacher from Pedernales, said he was returning by car from a nearby locality and saw wooden houses and lamp-posts collapse around him.
"It was devastating, all the roads are cracked open, there were two landslides," he said by phone, adding that bricks had landed in the bed of his home in Pedernales. His terrified family spent the night on the terrace.
In Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, rubble lay in the streets and a bridge fell on top of a car.
"It was horrible, it was as if it was going to collapse like cardboard," said Galo Valle, 56, who was guarding a building in the city where windows fell out and parts of walls broke.
“I prayed and fell to my feet to ask God to protect me."
About 13,500 security force personnel were mobilized to keep order around Ecuador, and $600 million in credit from multilateral lenders was immediately activated for the emergency, the government said.
Ramon Solorzano, 46, a car parts merchant in the coastal city of Manta, headed away from built-up areas with his family. Photos from Manta showed Red Cross workers arriving, police hunting through debris, a smashed sculpture and badly damaged buildings.
"Most people are out in the streets with backpacks on, heading for higher ground," Solorzano said, speaking in a trembling voice on a WhatsApp phone call. "The streets are cracked. The power is out and phones are down."
REFINERY SHUT, GALAPAGOS UNSCATHED
Parts of Quito were without power or phone service for several hours, but the city government said those services had been restored and there were no reports of casualties in the city.
The government called it the worst quake in the country since 1979. In that disaster, 600 people were killed and 20,000 injured, according to the US Geological Survey.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter that two Canadians were among the dead and that the "scope of the devastation in Ecuador is shocking."
The US State Department said in an email that it was working to confirm reports of Americans injured in the quake, though it had no reports of any US citizens killed.
In international aid, Venezuela, Chile and Mexico were sending personnel and supplies, the left-leaning Correa government said. US Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted his nation's solidarity and offered assistance.
Though tsunami warnings were lifted, coastal residents were still urged to seek higher ground in case tides rise.
The government said oil production was not affected, but closed its main refinery of Esmeraldas, located near the epicenter, as a precaution though it is likely to restart soon.
Residents on the Galapagos islands far off Ecuador's coast, which are home to numerous rare species, said they had not been affected by the quake.
The Ecuadorean quake followed two large and deadly quakes that struck Japan since Thursday. Both countries are located on the seismically active "Ring of Fire" that circles the Pacific, but according to the US Geological Survey large quakes separated by such long distances would probably not be related.
"Even the earth's rocky crust is not rigid enough to transfer stress efficiently over thousands of miles," it said on its website. Quakes can cause other big quakes within a range of hundreds of miles, but can cause only small, brief quakes at a distance of thousands of miles, it said.