CANETE, Peru - A massive earthquake hit Peru on Wednesday evening and officials said more than 330 people were killed in the rubble of collapsed homes and a church as rescuers searched for victims early on Thursday.
A view of a building on fire after an earthquake struck Rimac district in Peru, August 15, 2007. [Reuters]
Peru's health minister initially said few died in the 7.9-magnitude quake, but the toll later rose to more than 330, the nation's civil defense agency said. Hundreds were injured.
"Unfortunately we have official numbers," Luis Palomino, the head of the agency, told Reuters. On its web site, the agency said 337 people died and 827 were injured.
Emergency workers said the coastal province of Ica south of Lima was the hardest hit region.
One fire department official in the area said at least four people were trapped when the main tower of the Senor de Luren church in the city of Ica was toppled.
Rescuers struggled to move south toward Ica as portions of the Pan-American Highway, an key coastal route, were impassable and thieves assaulted stranded travelers, radio reports said.
"I was with my children when the movement started and then the walls collapsed. My house was destroyed," Milagros Meneses, 35, said in the city of Canete south of the capital, Lima. "The hospital gave me a tent for my kids to sleep in."
At least two people were killed in Canete.
Office workers ran onto the streets in fear as tall buildings in Lima shook in two waves that lasted around 20 seconds each and cut power lines.
A tsunami warning was issued for Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Colombia and a small tsunami was detected. But it posed no major threat and the warning was later lifted.
Condolences to families
Peruvian President Alan Garcia sent condolences to the families of the quake's victims and said the country, which has suffered devastating quakes in the past, narrowly escaped a major disaster.
"It fortunately did not cause a catastrophe with an immense number of victims," he said.
Ambulance sirens blared in the darkened capital where store windows shattered and cellular telephone services were cut off. The health ministry declared a disaster and traffic snarled at the international airport.
"I was playing soccer when the quake hit and I had to run back to my office because I am the chief of security. Now I am going to check on my family," said Juan Francisco Acevedo, 29, who works for an Internet company in Lima.
"People here hugging and crying in fear on the streets," said Cristyane Marusiak, a 31-year-old resident.
The US Geological Survey at first said there were two earthquakes within minutes of each other but later amended its reports to show that one quake struck about 90 miles southeast of Lima at a depth of around 25 miles.
It was followed by nine aftershocks ranging in magnitude from 6 to the upper 4s, said Dale Grant, a geophysicist at the USGS's National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado.
The USGS says earthquakes measuring more than 7 magnitude often result in fatalities. The Andes has many active fault lines.
In 1970, one of the world's deadliest earthquakes killed an estimated 50,000 Peruvians in catastrophic avalanches of ice and mud that buried the city of Yungay.
Peru is a leading minerals producer. But many of its major mines sit far away from the quake zone. Officials at the nearest big mine -- the Cerro Lindo copper, lead and zinc mine owned by Milpo -- could not be reached for comment.