ICA, Peru – Rescuers struggled across a shattered countryside on Thursday to reach victims of a magnitude-8 earthquake that killed at least 450 people. About 1,500 people were reported injured.
The center of the destruction was in Peru's southern desert, in the oasis city of Ica and the nearby port of Pisco, about 125 miles southeast of the capital, Lima. Pisco's mayor said at least 200 people were buried in the rubble of a church where they had been attending a service.
"The dead are scattered by the dozens on the streets," Mayor Juan Mendoza told Lima radio station CPN.
"We don't have lights, water, communications. Most houses have fallen. Churches, stores, hotels — everything is destroyed," the mayor said, sobbing.
In Ica, a city of 120,000 near the epicenter, a fourth of the buildings collapsed, at least 57 bodies were brought to the morgue and injured parents and children crowded into a hospital where they waited for attention on cots. Several Ica churches, also were damaged, including the historic Senor de Luren church. Cable news station Canal N said 17 people were killed in one of them.
The earthquake's magnitude was raised from 7.9 to 8 on Thursday by the U.S. Geological Survey. At least 15 major aftershocks followed, some as strong as magnitude-6.3.
The scope of the destruction became more evident as the frigid dawn broke and thick stone and masonry walls were seen collapsed in piles around the region. The quake knocked out telephone and mobile phone service between the capital and the disaster zone. Electricity also was cut, with power lines drooping dangerously into the streets.
The government rushed police, soldiers, doctors and aid to the area, but traffic was paralyzed by giant cracks and fallen powerlines on the Panamerican Highway south of Lima. Large boulders also blocked Peru's Central Highway to the Andes mountains. Rescue flights from Colombia and Panama were being prepared, but it wasn't immediately clear when they could arrive.
In Chincha, a small town 20 miles (30 kilometers) north of Pisco, an AP Television News cameraman counted 30 bodies under bloody sheets in a patio of the badly damaged hospital. About 200 people were waiting to be treated in walkways and gardens, kept outside for fear that aftershocks could topple the cracked walls.
"Our services are saturated and half of the hospital has collapsed," Dr. Huber Malma said as he single-handedly attended to dozens of people.
Chincha looked as if it had been bombed. Large areas were completely leveled; dozens of homes made with adobe bricks had collapsed. Townspeople picked through the rubble of their homes, wrapped in sheets that made them look like ghosts in the early dawn.
"We're all frightened to return to our houses," Maria Cortez said, staring vacantly at the half of her house that was still standing.
The Peruvian Red Cross arrived in Ica and Pisco 7 1/2 hours after the initial quake, about three times as long as it would normally have taken because of road damage, said Red Cross official Giorgio Ferrario. Offers of money and aid were flowing in from the United Nations, Spain and several Latin American countries.
In Lima, about 95 miles from the epicenter, only one death was recorded, and some homes collapsed. But the furious two minutes of shaking prompted thousands of people to fleee into the streets and sleep in public parks for safety.
"This is the strongest earthquake I've ever felt," said Maria Pilar Mena, 47, a sandwich vendor in Lima. "When the quake struck, I thought it would never end."
Antony Falconi, 27, was desperately trying to get public transportation home as hundreds of people milled on the streets flagging down buses in the dark.
"Who isn't going to be frightened?" Falconi said. "The earth moved differently this time. It made waves and the earth was like jelly."
Firefighters put out a fire in a shopping center. State doctors called off a national strike that began on Wednesday to handle the emergency. President Alan Garcia also said public schools would be closed Thursday because the buildings may be unsafe.
In New York, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Margareta Wahlstrom told reporters that Peruvian authorities told her agency that the death toll had risen to 450, with about 1,500 injured.
The earthquake hit at 6:40 p.m. about 90 miles southeast of Lima at a depth of about 19 miles (30 kilometers), when one of the region's two constantly shifting plates dove under the other quickly, according to Amy Vaughan, a USGS geophysicist at the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo.
The last time a quake of magnitude 7.0 or larger struck Peru was in September 2005, when a 7.5-magnitude earthquake rocked the country's northern jungle, killing four people. In 2001, a 7.9-magnitude quake struck near the southern Andean city of Arequipa, killing 71.