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

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

ByABC News via logo
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.