Major quake strikes northern Chile, killing at least two

June 22, 2009 12:06:33 PM PDT
A major earthquake crushed cars, damaged hundreds of houses and terrified people for hundreds of miles around Wednesday. Authorities reported at least two deaths and more than 100 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.

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 100 people were treated there for injuries or panic.

In the port city of Antofagasta, 105 miles south of the epicenter, police Capt. Javier Carmona said at least 45 people were injured. The mayor of nearby Maria Elena, Eduardo Ahumada, said 20 others were injured there and most of the town's 1,800 houses were damaged.

Television images showed cars crushed by the collapse of a hotel entryway in Antofagasta.

"It was horribly strong. It was very long and there was a lot of underground noise," said Andrea Riveros, spokeswoman for the Park Hotel in nearby Calama, site of the Chuquicamata copper mine. The mine's owner, Codelco, reported power outages but no major damage.

At the Agua del Desierto Hotel, administrator Paola Barria said she felt like she was riding on "a floating island." She reported downed power lines, cracked windows and fallen pieces of houses near the hotel.

"I was very frightened. It was very strong," she said. "I've never felt one that strong."

Schools, hospitals and other buildings were evacuated in several cities. Television showed some patients holding their IV bags as they were wheeled from the hospital in Copiapo, 500 miles north of Santiago.

The U.S. Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued, then canceled, a tsunami warning for Chile and Peru. It said the quake generated only a two-foot wave.

Scientists in Chile and the United States were trying to determine why such an intense quake apparently did not cause more damage.

"The ground in the region is very good, very firm, so the movement's effect on buildings is limited," said Sergio Barrientos, a seismologist at the University of Chile.

"It comes down to the level of shaking in certain places," added Paul Earle at the USGS. "It's not immensely populated in the areas most affected."

The quake occurred in one of the most seismically active regions in the world, where the Nazca tectonic plate is shoving itself beneath the South American plate.

A 1939 quake in Chile killed 28,000 people and in 1960, a magnitude-9.5 quake -- the strongest recorded in the 20th century -- killed 5,700 people. On June 13, 2005, a magnitude-7.8 quake near Tarapaca in northern Chile killed 11 people and left thousands homeless.

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