More than 450 die as devastating earthquake strikes Peru

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The Independent US

At least 450 people were feared dead and thousands more injured or missing after a powerful earthquake struck southern Peru. The quake caused the region's familiar adobe houses to crumble, and caused two churches full of worshippers to collapse in the cities of Ica and Pisco, more than 100 miles south of the capital, Lima.

Rescue workers and local journalists reported scenes of widespread devastation, as homeless survivors walked around in a daze, searching for friends and relatives and constructing makeshift sleeping quarters on the cracked streets and pavements of their levelled neighbourhoods.

"The dead are scattered by the dozens on the streets," the mayor of Pisco, Juan Mendoza, told a radio station. "We don't have lights, water, communications. Most houses have fallen, churches, stores, hotels, everything is destroyed."

Mayor Mendoza sobbed as he described how a church containing at least 200 worshippers collapsed as the 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck on Wednesday evening. The main cathedral in Ica also collapsed, killing at least 17 people.

One Peruvian reporter, Gustavo Sula of America TV, told viewers from Ica: "The hospitals have collapsed, the doctors are treating patients outside the four hospitals. People are roaming about the medical centres seeking help." Many Ica residents spent the night in public parks and other open areas.

Rescue workers coming from Lima struggled to reach the area, as the main road from the capital, the Pan American Highway, was blocked by a landslide and covered in cracks and potholes. The main bridge from the Highway leading into Pisco, Peru's main port, had also collapsed, according to Oxfam.

"The government's Civil Defence Institute says 70 per cent of the city of Pisco has fallen down," said Oxfam's local spokeswoman, Celia Aldana. "It's hard to calculate for sure... Fire trucks and cars going into Pisco cannot reach the city. People are out of their houses in the street. We presume there are problems with water. Shelters will be required. But we don't know anything for sure right now."

The quake and a series of powerful aftershocks measuring between 5.4 and 5.9 on the Richter scale could be felt over an area of hundreds of miles. Because the epicentre was in the Pacific Ocean, just off the Peruvian coast, the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre put out a warning to coastal residents across Peru and neighbouring countries, many of whom began evacuating or moving to higher ground. The warning was lifted again after two hours.

In Lima, office workers fled high-rises that shook seemingly uncontrollably as the quake hit in the early evening. The worst damage, however, was sustained more than 100 miles to the south.

An television crew that reached the town of Chincha found about 30 bodies lying under bloodied sheets in a badly damaged local hospital. Survivors who had spent the night outside returned to their devastated houses in the grey light of the early morning and pondered what they could still retrieve. "We're all frightened to return to our houses," one resident, Maria Cortez, told a reporter as she sat, tears streaming down her face, in a plastic chair outside the half of her house that was still standing.

The overall death toll was almost impossible to assess because rescue workers had hardly begun the effort to pull out people trapped inside their own houses. Civil Defence posted a death toll of 337 on its website, but rescue workers said that was likely to be only a very provisional number.

Peru's president, Alan Garcia, gave a televised address appealing for calm but it was not clear how many affected citizens saw or heard him since communications ­ electricity, telephones and mobile phones ­ were almost entirely knocked out.

Mr Garcia also said he was sending his health minister and two other cabinet members to Ica. He ordered off-duty police officers to report for duty so they could guard against looting. Schools across much of Peru remained closed yesterday so engineers could test the structural soundness of the buildings.

Foreign aid agencies, both governmental and non-governmental, were rushing to make assessments of the needs in the affected region so they could make a co-ordinated response.

Another quake of similar magnitude hit the country's northern jungle in September 2005 but did relatively little damage to people or property. Just four people were reported killed. More serious was a 7.9 magnitude earthquake that hit the southern Andean city of Arequipa in 2001, killing 71.