CONCEPCION, Chile (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 Russia.
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.
A 15-storey building collapsed in Concepcion, the closest major city to the epicenter, and overturned cars lay scattered below a fallen overpass in the capital Santiago. Telephone and power lines went down, 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. (1:34 a.m. EST), 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.
One emergency official 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.
"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 and the government said an estimated half a million homes were severely damaged.
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. Three people were killed and four missing there, he said.
Tsunami warnings were posted around the Pacific, including the U.S. state of Hawaii, Japan and Russia. The U.S. Navy said it was pulling six ships out of Hawaii's Pearl Harbor ahead of the tsunami, which was expected to hit the island at heights of up to 8 feet.
Unusually big waves battered Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, where residents were moved to higher ground as a precaution.
Bachelet said residents were evacuated from coastal areas of Chile's remote Easter Island, a popular tourist destination in the Pacific famous for its towering Moai stone statues.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake struck 70 miles northeast of Concepcion at a depth of 22 miles.
An earthquake of magnitude 8 or over can cause "tremendous damage," the USGS says. The January 12 quake that devastated Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince and killed well over 200,000 people was measured as magnitude 7.0.
Chile's capital of Santiago, about 200 miles 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.
"I thought I'd blown a tire ... but then I saw the highway moving like it was a piece of paper and I realized it was something much worse," said one man who was forced to abandon his car on a wrecked highway overpass.
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.
Local television showed a building in flames in Concepcion, one of Chile's largest cities with around 670,000 inhabitants. 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 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, about 175 miles 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."
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.
The magnitude 9.5 earthquake of 1960, the largest earthquake worldwide in the last 200 years, spawned a tsunami that engulfed the Pacific Ocean. About 1,600 lives were lost in Chile and the tsunami took another 200 lives in Japan, Hawaii and the Philippines
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 sent a tsunami that continued as far as Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines.
Saturday's quake shook buildings as far away as Argentina's Andean provinces of Mendoza and San Juan. A series of strong aftershocks rocked Chile's coastal region from Valdivia in the south to Valparaiso, about 500 miles to the north.
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 Kieran Murray