N E W D E L H I, India, Jan. 26, 2001 -- A devastating earthquake killed over 500 people and left hundreds more injured or missing throughout the Indian subcontinent today.
The quake, with conflicting estimates of a strength between 7.9 and 8.6 on the Richter scale, had its epicenter in the western Indian state of Gujarat. In that state's town of Bhuj, 150 people were killed when an apartment building collapsed. Another 200 people died in the city of Ahmedabad, also within that state. Hundreds injured or feared missing
Tremors were reported as far away as Kathmandu, Nepal, and Madras in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The quake was also felt in New Delhi and Bombay, where residents fled buildings and streamed into the streets.
The quake lasted up to 45 seconds near the epicenter, and 20 seconds in some places, and up to a minute in other places. Television pictures showed mangled piles of masonry andtwisted metal and the bloodied body of a small child. Elsewhere, a foot protruded from a heap of rubble.
India's finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, who was attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is heading home to offer what assistance he can.
"We must immediately rush help to the victims and the second is to rebuild their lives in the medium term," Sinha said. The earthquake hit as India was marking the 51st anniversary of the country's transition to a republic today with a public holiday and a military parade. Many families were spending the holiday at home when thequake struck, bringing down older buildings in the westernstate of Gujarat and sending out tremors that could be feltaround the country and beyond. Most Powerful Quake in Decades
According to Indian authorities, this was the most powerful earthquake to hit the country in 40 years. However, the rescue efforts are being hampered by damage to a major telecommunications grid which is located in the state of Gujarat.
It was the world's second major quake of the year. OnJanuary 13, a quake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale killedat least 700 people in El Salvador and made 10 percent of thatcountry's population homeless.
A 1999 quake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale killed morethan 2,400 people in Taiwan.
Earthquakes with intensity of 6.7 on the Richter scale cancause severe damage in populated areas. The last time thatGujarat, which is prone to tremors of up to seven on theRichter scale, suffered a quake of such intensity was in 1819.
The Meteorological Department said the epicenter oftoday's earthquake was in an area 13 miles northeastof Bhuj in the marshy and sparsely populated Rann of Kutch,which lies on the border with Pakistan.
Devastation Expected at Epicenter"We expect unimaginable damage in the epicenter," S.K.Srivastav, additional director general of meteorology, told Reuters in New Delhi.
"All buildings, including strong buildings, will sufferdamage in the epicenter area and all weak buildings will mostlikely collapse."
He also said there had been 13aftershocks.
"There are no set rules," he said. "It can continue for aweek."
Officials said aftershocks which could measure up to fiveon the Richter scale were likely to rock the state for severaldays and appealed to people not to remain in damaged buildings.
They said heavy damage was likely within a 125-mile radius of the epicenter.
Residents in the neighboring Pakistani cities of Karachiin the southwest and Peshawar in the northwest also said theyhad felt strong tremors today.
The last major earthquake to hit India was in March 1999.Measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale, the quake and itsaftershocks killed 100 people and injured 300 in the Himalayanfoothills and was felt across many parts of northern India,western Nepal and southern China.
A 1950 quake in the Indo-China border area measured 8.6 onthe Richter scale. It killed hundreds of people.
Indian Prime Minister AtalBehari Vajpayee called an emergency federal cabinet meeting today to assess the impact of the quake.
A government official said that the Cabinet willmeet at 5 p.m. (11:30 GMT) to "take stock of the situationarising from the quake" that struck large parts of westernIndia. ABCNEWS' Saitish Jacob in New Dehli, ABCNEWS Radio and Reuters contributed to this report