Chile Assesses Damage From Powerful Earthquake

A weeping man strokes the hand of a dead woman in a collapsed cafe. Survivors huddle around bonfires in the rubble of their homes. Smashed cars lie beneath bridges torn asunder by one of history's strongest earthquakes.

The country's national emergency office said more than 300 people were killed in Saturday's 8.8-magnitude quake. Officials said 1.5 million Chileans were affected and 500,000 homes severely damaged by the mammoth temblor.

SLIDESHOW: First photos from Chilean quake

"We think the real (death) figure tops 300 and we believe this will continue to grow," said Carmen Fernandez, head of the National Emergency Agency.

President Michelle Bachelet, who leaves office March 11, declared a "state of catastrophe" in central Chile. "It was a catastrophe of devastating consequences," she said.

Bachelet said the government had not asked for assistance from other countries. If it does, President Barack Obama said, the United States "will be there." Around the world, leaders echoed his sentiment.

As night fell Saturday, about a dozen men and children sat around a bonfire in the remains of their homes in Curico, a town 122 miles south of the capital, Santiago.

"We were sleeping when we felt the quake, very strongly. I got up and went out the door. When I looked back my bed was covered in rubble," said survivor Claudio Palma.

Fabian Miners, 22, was put in charge of tallying damages in Curico and surrounding villages. He said he had counted 90 deaths in the area, mainly people over 50 or 60 who could not get out of their falling adobe-walled homes in time.

Erika Vasquez, 28, said she and 14 of her relatives were sheltering under three small tarpaulins in the park in front of their collapsed home.

"They told us to go somewhere else, but all our things are here," said Vasquez, pointing at the rubble of what had been the family's home for 44 years.

The quake tore apart houses, bridges and highways, and Chileans near the epicenter were thrown from their beds by the force of the mega-quake, which was felt as far away as Sao Paulo in Brazil — 1,800 miles to the east.

The full extent of damage remained unclear as dozens of aftershocks — one nearly as powerful as Haiti's devastating Jan. 12 earthquake — shuddered across the disaster-prone Andean nation.

The quake caused newly built apartment buildings to slump and fall. Power lines collapsed. Falling bridges tossed cars and trucks like toys.

In Talca, just 65 miles from the epicenter, people sleeping in bed suddenly felt like they were flying through airplane turbulence as their belongings cascaded down around them when the quake hit at 3:34 a.m.

A deafening roar rose from the convulsing earth as buildings groaned and clattered. The sound of screams mixed with the crash of plates and windows. Then the earth stilled and stunned survivors began streaming outside.

A journalist emerging into the darkened street scattered with downed power lines saw a man, some of his own bones apparently broken, weeping and caressing the hand of a woman who had died in a cafe. Two other victims lay dead a few feet away.

Also near the epicenter was Concepcion, one of the country's largest cities, where a 15-story building collapsed, leaving a few floors intact.

In the capital Santiago, 200 miles to the northeast, the national Fine Arts Museum was badly damaged and an apartment building's two-story parking lot pancaked, smashing about 50 cars.

Santiago's airport was closed and its subway shut down. Chile's main seaport, in Valparaiso, was ordered closed while damage was assessed. Two oil refineries shut down. The state-run Codelco, the world's largest copper producer, halted work at two of its mines, but said it expected them to resume operations quickly.

The jolt set off a tsunami that swamped San Juan Bautista village on Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile, killing at least five people and leaving 11 missing, said Guillermo de la Masa, head of the government emergency bureau for the Valparaiso region.

On the mainland, several huge waves inundated part of the major port city of Talcahuano, near hard-hit Concepcion. A large boat was swept more than a block inland.

The surge of water raced across the Pacific, setting off alarm sirens in Hawaii, Polynesia and Tonga, but the tsunami waves proved small and did little damage as they reached as far as Japan.

Robert Williams, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey, said the Chilean quake was hundreds of times more powerful than Haiti's magnitude-7 quake, though it was deeper and cost far fewer lives.

The largest earthquake ever recorded struck the same area of Chile on May 22, 1960. The magnitude-9.5 quake killed 1,655 people and made 2 million homeless. Saturday's quake matched a 1906 temblor off the Ecuadorean coast as the seventh-strongest ever recorded in the world.