|A man walks over the debris from a damaged wall in Lima's port of Callao, after an earthquake struck Peru, August 15, 2007. A powerful earthquake rattled Peru on Wednesday, killing at least 337 people and injuring hundreds others as homes collapsed. [Reuters]
PISCO, Peru - Officials battled Thursday to help victims of a huge quake which rocked Peru's southern tourist coast killing some 500, injuring hundreds more, and leaving many feared trapped in the rubble.
"The toll has jumped to between 500 and 510 dead and 1,600 injured," the head of the country's firefighter service, Roberto Ocno said by telephone from the affected zone which was hit late Wednesday by a massive tremor.
"There are dead trapped under houses," he said. "There are several bodies in the streets, people who may have died from heart attacks."
The US Geological Survey on Thursday upgraded the quake to a rare 8.0 on the moment magnitude scale, as the Peruvian government said it was launching an airlift with helicopters and planes to bring emergency aid to the hard-hit coastal towns, cut off by the quake.
Two air force planes departed Lima at dawn bound for Ica, 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of Lima, carrying 50 tons of aid including medicine and food. And two national police helicopters loaded mainly with tents were headed for the small port of Pisco and north to nearby Chincha.
Buildings collapsed, major highways to the coast were torn asunder and power lines knocked out by the massive quake leaving overwhelmed local officials issuing urgent appeals for help.
"We have hundreds of dead lying in the streets, and injured people in the hospital. It is totally indescribable," said Juan Mendoza, the mayor of Pisco.
"Seventy percent of the town is devastated," Mendoza said. "We don't have water, no communications, the houses are collapsed, the churches are destroyed," he said, adding his town of 130,000 urgently needed medical help.
Many dead were still feared to be lying in the rubble of a church which crumpled during evening Mass.
An AFP reporter saw dozens of corpses on a Pisco sidewalk covered with blankets, as shocked survivors numbly surveyed the chaos wrought on the small coastal town in just a matter of minutes.
It was the biggest earthquake to hit the South American nation in decades.
Health Minister Carlos Vallejos traveled overnight to Ica to survey the damage. The government also sent a convoy of trucks to the region carrying medical supplies, doctors and nurses but damaged highways were hampering relief efforts.
The Peruvian Red Cross had sent an emergency team to the quake zone and said the trip by road from Lima to Pisco took seven hours instead of the usual two.
"The first impression of the team was of widespread devastation especially among the houses," said Giorgio Ferrario, the international Red Cross representative in Lima.
Foreign governments and aid groups launched relief efforts, with the United States, Spain, France and Ecuador promising emergency assistance and Bolivia saying it sent 12 tons of aid to the Pisco area.
The United Nations said it was ready to help and International Federation of the Red Cross said two planes carrying tents, plastic covers, blankets and water canisters would leave Panama City for Lima on Thursday.
Tens of thousands of panicked residents in the capital Lima had spent the night on the streets fearing more tremors, after quake rattled the country for two terrifying minutes Wednesday evening. A string of aftershocks through Thursday morning kept nerves on edge.
The quake, with its epicenter just offshore from Ica province, struck at 6:41 pm (2341 GMT) on Wednesday, prompting evacuations along the Pacific coast although the tsunami warning was later lifted.
The government declared its highest state of emergency and hospitals around the country were put on high alert. The health ministry made an emergency appeal for blood donations.
Peru has long lived in fear of a repeat of a 1970 earthquake that killed 70,000 people, many of whom perished in the mountain city of Huaraz which was buried by a mudslide.
A 2001 earthquake in the southern Peruvian state of Arequipa killed 75 people and destroyed 25,000 homes.
The open-ended Richter Scale had put the quake at 7.7. The quake's epicenter was offshore about 148 kilometers (92 miles) southwest of Lima at a depth of 40 kilometers (25 miles), according to USGS.
On average there is one quake of magnitude 8.0 or higher each year, according to the USGS, though in 2007 there have now been two: the Solomon Islands was struck by an 8.1 magnitude quake in April, killing 54.