Chile Earthquake Death Toll Soars Past 700 as Leader Describes 'Catastrophe'

Hundreds dead. Many displaced or missing. Toppled apartment rescues difficult.

February 28, 2010, 6:54 AM

Feb. 28, 2010— -- With more than 700 people believed dead and the toll expected to rise, Chilean rescue workers struggled to save people trapped by Saturday's massive earthquake -- including dozens believed to be inside a collapsed apartment block in the city of Concepcion.

The 8.8-magnitude earthquake was one of the most intense ever measured, and has prompted Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to declare a "state of catastrophe" in central Chile. More than half a million homes were destroyed in an event scientists said was 500 times stronger than the earthquake in Haiti.

Bachelet, who leaves office on March 11, sent the army to help police confront looting in the quake zone today, The Associated Press reported, sharply boosted estimates of injuries and said she'd likely appeal for international aid.

"We are facing a catastrophe of such magnitude that has caused damages that will require gigantic efforts from every sector of our country -- both private and public sector," Bachelet told the media today, according to an ABC News translation. "We face an emergency without precedent in the history of Chile, in which we need fast and urgent answers.

"The latest number that I have is of 708 dead -- 541 in Maule, 64 in Bio Bio, 103 in other regions, and there's a number of people who are still missing," Bachelet said around mid-day. "But I'm almost certain, at this point, that these numbers will continue to rise."

So far, no Americans have been confirmed among the dead. However, with communications in Chile still spotty, approximately 3,000 of about 18,000 Americans believed to be in the country have not been in contact with U.S. officials since the earthquake, according to the State Department.

Aftershocks continued to shake the region.

Fearing that roofs or walls still could crash over them, or because they had no homes to return to, many people in Chile spent the first full night after the earthquake outdoors, ignoring government instructions to stay indoors if homes looked secure. The government estimated at least 1 1/2 million people were displaced by the quake.

"They're afraid to go back in their homes, as anyone would be with aftershocks," said Tracy Reines, international response director of the American Red Cross. "The Chilean Red Cross has about 30 to 40 local Red Cross branches in the area, so they do everything from first aid to food, [and] soon will be emergency shelter and the like."

Helicopter footage early Sunday showed damage to highways, entire neighborhoods leveled and other areas flooded.

Rescue Effort in a Toppled Apartment Building

In the southwest coastal city of Concepcion -- the second-largest city in Chile with a population of 670,000 -- extensive damage included a newly opened 15-story apartment that toppled backward, trapping an estimated 60 people inside, the AP reported. Rescuers only managed to free 16 in the first 24 hours after the earthquake, and continued to work with two power saws and an electric hammer on a generator that was running out of fuel.

"It's very difficult working in the dark with aftershocks, and inside it's complicated," Paulo Klein, who was leading a group of rescue specialists from Puerto Montt, Chile, told the AP. "The apartments are totally destroyed. You have to work with great caution."

Gas and power lines snapped in the city, starting a fire at the local university, according to the AP.

Looting broke out in Concepcion by Sunday morning.

"I think the most critical need is probably the restoration of electricity and water in certain parts of the country," ABC News' Melia Patria reported from Santiago. "When people don't have electricity and water, I think that's where we're seeing a lot more looting because people are restless and they need resources."

Police used water cannon and tear gas to scatter people who forced open the doors of the Lider supermarket in Concepcion, the AP reported.

The government is working with power companies to restore disrupted electrical supplies, Bachelet said, adding that she is asking the private sector to pitch in on other emergency matters, too.

"In coordination with the largest supermarket chains, I have disposed the free distribution, in the regions of Maule, Bio Bio and some sectors of Araucania, of all products of main necessity that are stored in their facilities so they can be given away in a coordinated, orderly [manner] and in the places authorities decide and communicate to the citizens," Bachelet said.

"Also," she added, "in the next few hours we are expecting to normalize commercial air traffic, both nationally and internationally."

The Red Cross announced Saturday that it had raised at least $50,000 for aid to the earthquake-ravaged country. To learn more about how you can donate, visit

"We have received multiple offerings of international support and we have opened several lines and we have already mentioned that we'll have a global perspective on this to know what we were going to request in terms of international aid," Bachelet said. "Chile is a country that can resolve some of these issues itself, but there are other areas where we are going to receive support."

Bachelet said those areas likely would include emergency field hospitals, mobile bridges, communication systems, electrical systems and possibly rescue teams and water purification systems.

U.S. officials said there have been no requests for U.S. aid yet, though the United States can provide "helos for evacuations, satellite communications, imagery and some supplies all at working levels."

The Christian humanitarian organization, World Vision, began distributing "hundreds of blankets and some water containers to Santiago's earthquake survivors over the weekend," according to a press statement released by the charity.

"We are extremely concerned about the emotional impact of so many aftershocks on children. Not only the physical needs, but the psychosocial needs of children in the quake zone will be a priority once the full extent of the needs are known and we can begin delivering much-needed supplies," said Tatiana Benavides, World Vision's national director in Chile.

American Embassy Workers Safe After Chile Earhquake

Paul Simons, the U.S. ambassador to Chile, told "Good Morning America" that all American employees at the U.S. Embassy have been located.

"We have no reports of any [American] fatalities or serious injuries," Simons said.

However, he added that that, as of this morning, the embassy had no reports from Concepcion.

The earthquake, which hit just after 3 a.m. local time Saturday, was stronger but much deeper than last month's Haitian earthquake, likely making the number of casualties far fewer than those in the Caribbean nation.

The Chile earthquake struck 22 miles below the surface in the Bio Bio region of the country, while the Haiti earthquake struck only 6 miles below the surface, according to scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey.

The three-minute-long quake struck less than 100 miles north of Concepcion but caused damage as far away as the capital, Santiago, nearly 200 miles away.

In the hours after Chile's quake, coastal cities from Japan to Australia were placed on alert for a tsunami. Most areas were spared widespread destruction from the waves, though at least five deaths and 11 people missing were reported on Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile, according to the AP.

Ronald Scott, an American who was staying at a hostel in Santiago when the earthquake hit, told ABC News that while he was terrified, the damage he witnessed was far less extensive than what he saw reported from Haiti.

"It was very scary," Scott said. "The first thing I did was jump underneath the first table I could find and even that was about to collapse on me.

"Everything just started jumping up and down, the lights went out and everything sounded like a railroad train," he said. "The buildings were shaking, but they're still standing because of the construction."

Massive Earthquake, Modest Tsunami

The buildings in Chile are constructed specifically to withstand earthquakes, and the country is no stranger to disaster from an unexpected quake.

"Since 1973 they've had 13 earthquakes over 7.7 magnitude," said Paul Earle, a seismologist from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Chile has the record for the world's strongest recorded earthquake -- a 9.5 magnitude quake that struck in 1960.

That earthquake sent a tsunami to Hawaii that killed 61 people and destroyed 500 homes. Tsunami waves triggered by an earthquake can travel at the speed of a jet before slamming into a distant coast as unusually high waves.

This time, Hawaiian officials cleared beaches and sounded alarms for hours before the expected arrival of the tsunami.

But scientists with the Pacific Tsunami Center said the islands "dodged a bullet." Hawaii's tsunami waves, which hit around 1 p.m. Hawaii time, were relatively mild and did not cause any damage.

To read all of ABC's coverage on the Chile Earthquake, click here.

ABC News' Kirit Radia, ABC News Radio and The Associated Press contributed to this report.