A massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck Chile early yesterday, killing at least 210 people, bringing down homes and hospitals, and setting off a tsunami that triggered warnings and evacuations across the entire Pacific. At the time of writing, a tidal wave of as yet undetermined height is heading, at a speed of hundreds of miles an hour, towards places as far away as Australia, the Philippines and even Russia. In the early hours of today it reached New Zealand, having arrived in Hawaii to no great effect a few hours before. The island, in the words of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, "dodged the bullet".
Yesterday's quake was far stronger than the 7.0 magnitude tremor that killed more than 200,000 in Haiti in January, but it happened in a country that is better prepared than most. Yet the impact was immediate and, for those feeling it, severe. Chilean TV showed images from the city of Concepcion of collapsed homes, broken roads, large buildings engulfed in flames, the injured lying in the streets or on stretchers, and residents huddled in streets strewn with glass and masonry.
Many were terrified by the powerful and repeated aftershocks. In the hours after the quake, there were no fewer than 50 that registered a magnitude greater than 5.0, and one at 6.9 – within a whisker of the main Haiti tremor. The country's President, Michelle Bachelet, wasted little time in declaring a "state of catastrophe" in central Chile. The death toll is expected to rise, but not, according to the country's Interior Minister, Edmundo Perez, dramatically. He may yet be proved wrong.
It was at 06.34 GMT (3.34am local time) that the quake struck. The epicentre was at a depth of 22 miles, and was 70 miles north-east of Concepcion, 200 miles south-west of the capital, Santiago, and 60 miles from the ski town of Chillan, a gateway to Andean ski resorts that were destroyed in a 1939 earthquake. It lasted 90 seconds, and was felt 900 miles away in Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires, with aftershocks carrying more than 500 miles.
In Santiago modern buildings are built to withstand earthquakes, but many older ones were heavily damaged, including the Nuestra Senora de la Providencia church, whose bell tower collapsed, and the National Fine Arts Museum. An apartment building's two-storey car parkwas completely levelled, smashing about 50 cars whose alarms and horns rang incessantly. Several bridges also collapsed, hundreds of buses were trapped in their depots, the subway system shut and the city's airport – where passenger walkways were destroyed, ceilings brought down and windows broken – was closed.
Marco Vidal, a director for Grand Circle Travel travelling with a group of 34 Americans, was on the 19th floor of the Crown Plaza Santiago hotel when the earthquake struck. He said: "Everything started to fall. The lamps, everything, was going on the floor. And it was moving like from south to north – oscillating. I felt terrified."
Cynthia Iocono, from Pennsylvania, said she first thought the quake was a train. "But then I thought, oh, there's no train here. And then the lamps flew off the dresser and my TV flew off on to the floor. It was scary, but there really wasn't any panic. Everybody kind of stayed orderly and looked after one another."
In both Santiago and Concepcion, there were blackouts; three hospitals were among the buildings that collapsed, and a 15-storey block in the latter city had reportedly crumpled with its residents trapped in the rubble. One elderly man in the centre of the capital said: "My house is completely destroyed, everything fell over ... it has been totally destroyed. My wife and I huddled in a corner and after several hours they rescued us."
Elsewhere, severed communications meant that reports of damage were tentative and could worsen considerably. Several buildings collapsed in the cities of Curico and Temuco, where the regional hospital had to be evacuated. In the coastal city of Vina del Mar, the earthquake struck just as people were leaving a disco. Julio Alvarez told a radio station: "It was very bad, people were screaming, some people were running, others appeared paralysed. I was one of them."
In the town of Talca, 65 miles from the epicentre, many of the adobe mud buildings collapsed, although these were business premises that were unoccupied when the quake hit in the middle of the night. And, in Chillan, 209 inmates escaped from prison, after a fire broke out.
What was described as a "huge wave", perhaps as much as 8ft high, reportedly caused extensive damage to the populated part of the Juan Fernandez islands, 410 miles off the Chilean coast, where the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned in the 18th century, inspiring the novel Robinson Crusoe. Residents were also evacuated from coastal areas of Easter Island, famous for its towering Moai statues.
In Hawaii, preparations for evacuations ahead of a tsunami were under way by early morning. At 6am local time, civil defence sirens wailed across the island state. The message from John Cummings, an Oahu Civil Defense spokesman, was unequivocal: "Get off the shoreline. We are closing all the beaches and telling people to drive out of the area."
Even before the sirens sounded, lines of cars snaked for blocks from petrol stations throughout Honolulu, the state's capital. Victor Sardina, a geophysicist, said the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center was urging all countries included in the warning to take the threat very seriously.
"Everybody is under a warning because the wave, we know, is on its way. Everybody is at risk now," he said. The first waves duly arrived mid-evening London time, but were well short of the feared height of eight feet. Other countries under threat – Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the US west coast and Alaska, and others across southern Asia – are still, to varying extents, braced for a possible surge.
Earthquakes across the Pacific have had deadly effects on Asia in the past. A tsunami after a 9.5 magnitude quake that struck Chile in 1960, the largest earthquake ever recorded, killed about 140 people in Japan, 61 in Hawaii and 32 in the Philippines. That tsunami was about 3.3 to 13ft in height, Japan's Meteorological Agency said.
There were fears late last night that the tsunami from Saturday's quake could be as high as three metres when it reaches the Japanese coast.
Australia, meanwhile, was put on tsunami watch. The Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Center issued an alert for a "potential tsunami threat" to the states of New South Wales and Queensland, Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island.
Chile has a long history of severe quakes, including the worst one ever reliably measured. This was the 9.5 magnitude jolt at Valdivia in 1960 that killed 1,655 people in total. The most deadly was a 7.8 magnitude quake centred on Chillan that struck in 1939 and claimed 28,000 lives.