CONCEPCION, Chile — Rescuers edged their way toward quake victims trapped in a toppled apartment block early Sunday even as looters stole food and robbed banks after one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded struck Chile.
Authorities put the death toll from Saturday’s magnitude-8.8 quake at about 300, but believed the number would grow. They said 1.5 million Chileans were affected and 500,000 homes severely damaged by the mammoth temblor.
A tsunami caused by the quake that swept across the Pacific killed several people on a Chilean island and devastated over coastal communities near the epicenter, but caused little damage in other countries, after precautionary evacuations of hundreds of thousands of people. The tsunami warning was lifted a day after the earthquake.
President Michelle Bachelet, who leaves office March 11, declared a “state of catastrophe” in central Chile. “It was a catastrophe of devastating consequences,” she said.
Officials said earlier they had counted 214 dead, but more victims were being found. “At the moment there are some 300 fatalities,” Jose Abumohor, a duty chief at the National Emergency Agency, said Sunday.
Police said more than 100 people died in Concepcion, the largest city near the epicenter with more than 200,000 people. The university was among the buildings that caught fire around the city as gas and power lines snapped. Many streets were littered with rubble from edifices and inmates escaped from a nearby prison.
Police used water cannon and tear gas to scatter people who forced open the doors of the Lider supermarket in Concepcion, hauling away everything from diapers to dehydrated milk to a kitchen stove.
Across the Bio Bio River in San Pedro, others cleared out a shopping mall. A video store was set ablaze, two automatic teller machines were broken open, a bank was robbed and a supermarket emptied, its floor littered with mashed plums, scattered dog food and smashed liquor bottles.
The largest building damaged in Concepcion was a newly opened 15-story apartment that toppled backward, trapping an estimated 60 people inside apartments where the floors suddenly became vertical and the contents of every room slammed down onto rear walls.
“It fell at the moment the earthquake began,” said 4th Lt. Juan Schulmeyer of Concepcion’s 7th Firefighter Company, pointing to where the foundation collapsed. A full 24 hours later, only 16 people had been pulled out alive, and six bodies had been recovered.
Rescuers heard a woman call out at 11 p.m. Saturday from what seemed like the 6th floor, but hours later they were making slow progress in reaching her. Rescuers were working with two power saws and an electric hammer on a generator, but their supply of gas was running out and it was taking them a frustrating hour and a half to cut each hole through the concrete.
“It’s very difficult working in the dark with aftershocks, and inside it’s complicated. The apartments are totally destroyed. You have to work with great caution,” said Paulo Klein, who was leading a group of rescue specialists from Puerto Montt. They flew in on an air force plane with just the equipment they could carry. Heavy equipment was coming later along with 12 other rescuers.
The quake tore apart houses, bridges and highways, and Chileans near the epicenter were thrown from their beds by the force of the mega-quake, which was felt as far away as Sao Paulo in Brazil — 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) to the east.
The full extent of damage remained unclear. Ninety aftershocks of magnitude 5 or greater shuddered across the disaster prone Andean nation within 24 hours of the initial quake. One was nearly as powerful as Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12 earthquake.