MARIA ELENA, Chile – A major earthquake crushed cars, damaged thousands of houses, blocked roads and terrified people for hundreds of miles around Wednesday. Chilean authorities reported at least two deaths and more than 150 injuries.
The quake, which struck at 12:40 p.m., shook the Chilean capital 780 miles to the south of the epicenter, and was felt as far away as the other side of the continent – in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1,400 miles to the east.
The U.S. Geological Survey calculated the magnitude at 7.7. It was followed by several aftershocks, including three larger than magnitude 5. The University of Chile’s Seismological Institute put the epicenter near Quillagua, a tiny desert village in the foothills of the Andes mountains.
“It was incredible. I thought my last day had come when I saw the mountain shaking under a large cloud of dust,” Maria Ines Palete, a Quillagua resident, told state television.
Hardest hit were the cities of Tocopilla and Maria Elena.
Two women were killed in the town of Tocopilla, 25 miles from the epicenter, when their houses collapsed, authorities said. Hospital director Juan Urrutia said at least 117 people were treated there for injuries or panic.
Presidential spokesman Ricardo Lagos Weber said about 170 people were taken to hospitals throughout the affected region, but that many of the injuries were not serious.
In Tocopilla, 100 houses were destroyed and another 2,500, or 40 percent of the city’s total, were damaged, said Lagos Weber. Two sections of Tocopilla were evacuated and two schools were being used as shelters for those left homeless by the quake.
Lagos Weber said 1,200 homes were damaged in Maria Elena – or 70 percent of the city’s total – and residents were still without running water, electricity and telephone service.
At the badly damaged Lautaro restaurant in Maria Elena, a dozen men drank beer by candlelight.
“What else can I do? I lost everything. So I’ll just have a few drinks,” said Samuel Araya, a 57-year-old miner in this town of 7,000 people.