QUITO, Ecuador — The strongest earthquake to strike Ecuador in decades left the Andean nation traumatized Sunday, with collapsed buildings in a swath of destruction stretching hundreds of miles.
At least 246 people were killed and 2,527 injured, mostly in the northwestern coastal area of Manabí, the government said.
President Rafael Correa cut short a visit to Europe and declared a national emergency after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Saturday night, shaking the central coast. The effects could be felt in the capital, Quito, and into parts of Peru and Colombia.
Portoviejo, the provincial capital of Manabí, and Pedernales, a resort town, appeared to have sustained the most damage, with about 370 buildings destroyed.
Viviana Baquezea, 34, a florist, was driving back to her home in Portoviejo, accompanied by her parents and an employee, when the earthquake struck. They were met by a scene of destruction.
“It looks like a war zone,” Baquezea said by telephone from Portoviejo. “It’s incredible what was happened to us — that our city is destroyed and we’re experiencing such anguish and pain.”
“We don’t have food or water, there are no supermarkets, and we’re surviving with what we had in our homes,” she added.
José Vaca, a television producer for OromarTV, said the seconds in which the earth refused to stay still seemed to last forever.
“We were preparing to transmit a local football game when everything started to shake and the people fled in panic,” he said of a game in Portoviejo. “I had to avoid being crushed by the people. I have some scrapes. But what I see around me is really terrible, startling and very sad.”
Ecuador has a history of destructive earthquakes, but the one Saturday, which by some accounts lasted more than a minute, is believed to have been one of the most powerful since the 1970s. Some geologists said its force was 20 times greater than the deadly earthquake that struck southern Japan early Saturday.
The quake had a depth of nearly 12 miles. Several aftershocks, some as strong as magnitude 5.6, followed. The earthquake’s center was 16 miles southeast of Muisne, Ecuador, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
About 4,600 members of the National Police and 10,400 members of the armed forces were mobilized as part of the emergency response. Hundreds of doctors, health professionals and rescue workers were heading toward the hardest-hit areas.
The president’s emergency decree gives the government expanded authority and a state of emergency in six of the country’s 24 provinces. Deaths were reported in the northern provinces of Esmeraldas, Manabí and Guayas.
Among the dead were a youngster who fell down the stairs in a mall in the southern port city of Guayaquil and another who died after the collapse of a bridge in the city, according to reports from the television station Teleamazonas.
Adriana Villacís, 40, a nurse, said she was with her husband and her 4-year-old son at a supermarket about 30 minutes from Quito when groceries began to fall to the floor.
“The first thing I did was protect my son and look for the exit, but a part of the roof fell, and I was frozen,” she said. “Thank God we weren’t physically harmed, but the shock caused my child to vomit.”
In the Pedernales district, near the epicenter, a number of homes fell, damaging parked cars.
On Avenue Mariscal Sucre in northern Quito, signposts fell, causing panic among drivers. Jorge Espinel said he had parked his car to avoid an accident.
“It was terrible, such a shock,” he said. “I don’t have words for what I felt.”
In Quito, where the shaking was felt for about 40 seconds and residents took to the streets in fear, the quake appeared to have knocked out electricity and cellphone coverage in several neighborhoods.
The mayor of Quito, Mauricio Rodas, said there had been rockslides on roads leading to the capital and reports that the walls of houses had fallen. But he said that no fatalities or injuries had been reported in the city.
Christian Rivera, a municipal official in Quito, said a group of 40 children with disabilities from the capital, who had been on an outing, were found near Pedernales and were rescued.
In Guayaquil, an overpass collapsed on a car, and the roof of a shopping center buckled. In Manta, the airport was closed after the control tower was severely damaged. Fundación Esperanza Canina, an organization in Manta that cares for stray animals, said on Facebook that its shelter had been destroyed and that several dogs had been crushed by the debris.
Correa urged people to show strength while he and the authorities monitored events.
Carlos Hernandez, a representative of Save the Children International in Quito, said his organization was sending a team of disaster response specialists from Panama to Manabí and putting together supply kits to distribute there.
His organization and other civil society groups met with government officials to plan their response Sunday. “We’re trying to see what they need most and where,” he said.