28 Feb 2010

At least 300 confirmed dead in Chile earthquake

9:52 pm on 28 February 2010

Two million people have been affected by the massive earthquake that struck central Chile on Saturday night, killing more than 300 people, President Michelle Bachelet has said.

Michelle Bachelet, who has only two weeks left in office, has declared six of Chile's 15 regions catastrophe zones after the 8.8 magnitude quake.

She says 1.5 million homes have been affected by the disaster and about a third of those will never be able to be lived in again.

It is the biggest quake to hit Chile in 50 years, reports the BBC.

The quake, registered by the US Geological Survey as centred 115km north-east of Concepcion at a depth of 35km, occurred at 3.34am local time (7.34pm Saturday NZ time).

In Concepcion, which was the city nearest to the epicentre, cars were thrown from collapsed motorways and bridges and at least 12 buildings caught fire.

Rescue workers pulled 22 people from the rubble of a 15-storey apartment block that pancaked into itself.

Television images showed people looting pharmacies and a collapsed grain silo.

And more than 260 prisoners took advantage of the quake to escape from a prison south of Santiago.

Police say 28 were captured and three shot.

Widespread damage to roads and buildings has been reported in many areas.

Electricity, water and phone lines have been cut.

At least 85 people died in the region of Maule alone, journalists there reported.

Many deaths were also reported in the regions of Santiago, O'Higgins, Biobio, Araucania and Valparaiso.

TV pictures showed a major bridge at Concepcion had collapsed into the Biobio river.

Rescue teams are struggling to reach Concepcion because of damage to infrastructure, national media reported.

In Santiago, where at least 13 people were killed, several buildings collapsed - including a car park.

A fire at a chemical plant in the outskirts of the capital forced the evacuation of the neighbourhood.

Santiago international airport's terminal was damaged and will be closed for at least 72 hours, officials said. Flights are being diverted to Mendoza in Argentina.

"The forces of nature have badly affected our country," Ms Bachelet said in a TV address.

"And once again they've put to the test our ability to deal with adversity and get back on our feet. And we are examining every way to restore all the basic services in the country. But there's still a lot to do," she said.