February 27, 2010 / 4:22 PM / 7 years ago

UPDATE 16-Massive earthquake hits Chile, 214 dead

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(For full coverage, click on [nN27174408])

* Quake kills at least 214 people in central Chile

* Buildings toppled, bridges and roads destroyed

* Operations halted at two major copper mines

* Tsunami kills at least 4 on Robinson Crusoe island (Adds tsunami in Hawaii, details on building collapse)

By Jose Luis Saavedra

CONCEPCION, Chile, Feb 27 (Reuters) - One of the world's most powerful earthquakes in a century battered Chile on Saturday, killing at least 214 people, knocking down buildings and triggering a tsunami that threatened Pacific coastlines as far away as Hawaii and Japan.

Buildings caught fire, bridges collapsed and debris blocked streets across swathes of central Chile, but the initial death toll was relatively low from a quake packing many times more power than the one that devastated Haiti last month.

An apartment block with up to 200 people inside collapsed in Concepcion, the closest major city to the epicenter, and rescue officials said they were unsure how many escaped.

Overturned cars lay scattered below a fallen overpass in the capital Santiago and telephone and power lines went down across the narrow country, making it difficult to assess the full extent of the damage and loss of life.

The government said at least 214 people were killed in the 8.8-magnitude quake, which struck at 3:34 a.m. (0634 GMT), sending people rushing from their beds and onto the streets in fear, hugging each other and crying.

"It came in waves and lasted so long. Three minutes is an eternity. We kept worrying that it was getting stronger, like a terrifying Hollywood movie," said Santiago housewife Dolores Cuevas.

Chilean officials said the number of deaths was unlikely to increase dramatically, and a U.S. Geological Survey researcher attributed the low toll to Chile's solid building standards.

But it was the fifth-largest earthquake since 1900 and dealt a blow to the economy and infrastructure of the world's No. 1 copper producer and one of Latin America's most developed and stable countries. [ID:nN27181062]

"This will be a major blow to the country's infrastructure; there has been major damage to roads, airports, which are now suspended, ports and also in housing," Chilean President-elect Sebastian Pinera said.

The quake halted operations at two oil refineries and two major copper mines [ID:nN27177467] and the government said an estimated half a million homes were severely damaged.

Pacific Tsunami

President Michelle Bachelet said a huge wave hit the Juan Fernandez islands, an archipelago where Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned in the 18th century, inspiring the novel Robinson Crusoe.

"There was a series of waves that got bigger and bigger, which gave people time to save themselves," pilot Fernando Avaria told TVN television by telephone from the main island.

But four people were killed and 13 others were missing on the island, a local official said.

Fifteen hours after the quake struck Chile, the tsunami reached Hawaii's Big Island, where residents and tourists were evacuated from low-lying coastal areas. The sea changed color and receded in some places, but there were no signs of large waves that could threaten the cluster of mid-Pacific islands. [ID:nN27143561]

Tsunami warnings were posted around the Pacific, including for Japan, Russia and Australia.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake struck 70 miles (115 km) northeast of Concepcion at a depth of 22 miles (35 km). It said an earthquake of magnitude 8 or over can cause "tremendous damage." The Jan. 12 quake that devastated Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince and killed well over 200,000 people was measured as magnitude 7.0.

Capital Damaged, Mines Shut

Chile's capital of Santiago, about 200 miles (320 km) north of the epicenter, was also badly hit. The international airport was closed for at least 24 hours as the quake destroyed passenger walkways and shook glass out of doors and windows.

Codelco, the world's largest copper producer, suspended operations at its El Teniente and Andina mines, but reported no major damage and said it expected the mines to be up and running in the "coming hours."

Production was halted at the Los Bronces and El Soldado copper mines, owned by Anglo American Plc, but Chile's biggest copper mine, Escondida, was operating normally.

Chile produces about 34 percent of world supply of copper, which is used in electronics, cars and refrigerators.

In Concepcion, one of Chile's largest cities with around 670,000 inhabitants, at least 12 buildings caught fire and rescue workers pulled 22 people from the rubble of the 15-storey apartment block that pancaked into itself.

Some residents looted pharmacies and a collapsed grains silo, hauling off bags of wheat, television images showed.

At least 269 prisoners took advantage of the quake to escape from a prison about 250 miles (450 km) south of Santiago, police said. Twenty-eight of the inmates were captured and three shot.

Broken glass and chunks of concrete and brick were strewn across roads and several strong aftershocks rattled jittery residents in the hours after the initial quake.

"It was like we were being shaken around in a box," said Claudia Rosario, a 27-year-old receptionist in Temuco, 175 miles (280 km) south of Concepcion. She said residents there were without water and electricity.

"But thank God it was just small things (broken). It could have been worse."

An eight-year-old boy and an older man were killed in the northern Argentine city of Salta when an powerful aftershock caused walls to collapse, local officials said.

There were blackouts in parts of Santiago. Emergency officials said buildings in the historic quarters of two southern cities, mainly made of adobe, had been badly damaged and local radio said three hospitals had partially collapsed.

In 1960, Chile was hit by a 9.5-magnitude earthquake, one of the biggest ever recorded. It devastated the city of Valdivia, killed 1,655 people and spawned a tsunami that engulfed the Pacific Ocean, taking another 200 lives in Japan, Hawaii and the Philippines.

President Barack Obama called Bachelet and said the United States stood ready to help Chile. He also urged Americans to heed warnings about a possible tsunami that could affect the U.S. West Coast and Hawaii.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to visit Chile on Tuesday on a Latin American tour. (Additional reporting by Helen Popper, Kevin Gray, Guido Nejamkis and Juliana Castilla in Buenos Aires; Alonso Soto in Santiago, editing by Stuart Grudgings and Anthony Boadle)

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