PEDERNALES, Ecuador — Rescuers pulled survivors from rubble Sunday after the strongest earthquake to hit Ecuador in decades flattened buildings and buckled highways along its Pacific coast. Officials said the quake killed at least 238 people and injured more than 1,500.
The magnitude-7.8 quake, the strongest to hit the country since 1979, was centered on Ecuador’s sparsely populated fishing ports and tourist beaches, 105 miles (170 kilometers) northwest of Quito, the capital.
Vice President Jorge Glas said at a somber news conference that the death toll was likely to rise. Much of the damage occurred in the cities of Manta, Portoviejo and Guayaquil — all several hundred kilometers (miles) from the center of the quake, which struck shortly after nightfall Saturday.
In Pedernales, a town of 40,000 near the quake’s epicenter, dozens of frightened residents prepared to sleep in the streets for a second straight night as power cables were strewn across streets with no prospect of electricity being restored soon.
“We’re trying to do the most we can, but there’s almost nothing we can do,” said Pedernales Mayor Gabriel Alcivar.
Alcivar pleaded for authorities to send earth-moving machines and rescue workers to help find people in the rubble. He said looting had broken out amid the chaos but authorities were too busy trying to save lives to re-establish order.
“This wasn’t just a house that collapsed. It was an entire town,” he said.
President Rafael Correa, who cut short a trip to Rome to oversee relief efforts, declared a national emergency and urged Ecuadoreans to stay strong.
“Everything can be rebuilt, but what can’t be rebuilt are human lives, and that’s the most painful,” he said in a telephone call to state TV before departing Rome for Manta.
More than 14,000 police and soldiers were sent to towns near the epicenter.
Searchers scrambled through ruins in the provincial capital Portoviejo, digging with their hands trying to find survivors. As officials set up shelters and field hospitals, residents said they felt like the entire town had been flattened.
“For god’s sake help me find my family,” pleaded Manuel Quijije, 27. He said his older brother, Junior, was trapped under a pile of twisted steel and concrete with two relatives.
“We managed to see his arms and legs. They’re his, they’re buried, but the police kicked us out because they say there’s a risk the rest of the building will collapse,” Quijije said angrily. “We’re not afraid. We’re desperate. We want to pull out our family.”
More than 3,000 packages of food and nearly 8,000 sleeping kits were being delivered. Electricity mostly remained out in Manabi province, the hardest-hit region, as authorities focused on finding survivors.
“Compatriots: Unity, strength and prayer,” the vice president told a throng of people in Manta as he instructed them on how to look for survivors. “We need to be quiet so we can hear. We can’t use heavy machinery because it can be very tragic for those who are injured.”
On social media, Ecuadorians celebrated a video of a baby girl being pulled from beneath a collapsed home in Manta.
But the prospect of another night in the streets grew more worrisome for many people after authorities announced that 180 prisoners from a jail near Portoviejo escaped amid the tumult after the quake.
Shantytowns and cheaply constructed brick and concrete homes were reduced to rubble along the quake’s path. In the coastal town of La Esmeralda, authorities estimated than 90 percent of homes had damage, while in Guayaquil a shopping center’s roof fell down and a collapsed highway overpass crushed a car. In Manta, the airport closed after the control tower collapsed, injuring an air traffic control worker and a security guard.
In the capital, Quito, terrified people fled into the streets as the quake shook buildings. One resident shot a video of his lamps and hanging houseplants swinging wildly for more than 30 seconds as the building rocked back and forth. The quake knocked out electricity in several neighborhoods and a few homes collapsed, but after a few hours power was being restored.
Among those killed was the driver of a car crushed by an overpass that buckled in Guayaquil, the country’s most populous city. Two Canadians were also among the dead. The city’s international airport was briefly closed.
Hydroelectric dams and oil pipelines in the OPEC-member nation were shut down as a precautionary measure but there were no reports of damage to them.
Ecuador’s ally, Venezuela, and neighboring Colombia, where the quake was also felt, organized airlifts of humanitarian aid. The European Union, Spain, Peru and Mexico also pledged aid, while Pope Francis from the Vatican, where Correa on Friday had been attending a papal conference, asked the world’s Roman Catholics to pray for victims. The government would draw on $600 million in emergency funding from multilateral banks to rebuild, Correa said.
The U.S. Geological Survey originally put the quake at a magnitude of 7.4 then raised it to 7.8. It had a depth of 19 kilometers (12 miles). More than 135 aftershocks followed, one as strong as magnitude-5.6, and authorities urged residents to brace for even stronger ones in the coming hours and days.
The quake was about six times as strong as the most powerful of two deadly earthquakes on the other side the Pacific, in the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. A magnitude-6.5 earthquake struck Thursday near Kumamoto, followed by a magnitude-7.0 earthquake just 28 hours later. Those quakes killed 41 people and injured about 1,500, flattening houses and triggering major landslides.
Susan Hough, a seismologist at the USGS, said evidence exists that extremely large earthquakes can trigger other earthquakes at large distances and that within close distances the frequency of quakes are frequently clustered. But she said there appears no direct relationship between the quakes on opposite sides of the Pacific.
“Nobody has ever demonstrated statistically significant temporal clustering of large quakes worldwide,” she said in an email. “Maybe there is something more going on than what we understand.”