ICA, Peru (AP) — The death toll jumped to an estimated 510 yesterday in the magnitude 8 earthquake that devastated cities of adobe and brick in Peru’s southern desert. Survivors wearing blankets against the winter cold walked like ghosts through the ruins.
Dust-covered dead were pulled out and laid in rows in the streets or beneath bloodstained sheets at damaged hospitals and morgues. Doctors struggled to help more than 1,500 injured, including hundreds who waited on cots in the open air, fearing more aftershocks would send the structures crashing down.
Destruction was centered in Peru’s southern desert at the oasis city of Ica and the nearby port of Pisco, about 125 miles southeast of the capital, Lima.
The United Nations said the death toll was expected to rise beyond the 450 reported.
“It is quite likely that the numbers will continue to go up since the destruction of the houses in this area is quite total,” said U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Margareta Wahlstrom.
“The toll has jumped to between 500 and 510 dead and 1,600 injured,” Roberto Ocno, the head of the country’s firefighter service, told Agence France-Presse from Peru’s southern coastal area.
“There are dead trapped under houses,” he said. “There are several bodies in the streets — people who may have died from heart attacks.”
Pisco Mayor Juan Mendoza said at least 200 persons were buried in the rubble of a church where they were attending a service. About 17 others died inside a church in Ica, the Canal N cable news station said. The Senor de Luren church was among several heavily damaged in the city, where at least 57 bodies were taken to the morgue.
Services were packed when the quake struck at 6:40 p.m. Wednesday because Aug. 15 is celebrated by Roman Catholics as the day the Virgin Mary rose to heaven.
“The dead are scattered by the dozens on the streets,” Mr. Mendoza told Lima radio station CPN, sobbing. “We don’t have lights, water, communications. Most houses have fallen. Churches, stores, hotels — everything is destroyed.”
The earthquake’s magnitude was raised from 7.9 to 8 yesterday by the U.S. Geological Survey. At least 14 aftershocks of magnitude 5 or greater followed.
President Alan Garcia flew by helicopter to Ica, a city of 120,000 where a quarter of the buildings collapsed, and declared a state of emergency. He said flights were sent to Ica to take in aid and take out the injured. Government doctors called off their national strike for higher pay.
“There has been a good international response even without Peru asking for it, and they’ve been very generous,” Mr. Garcia said during a stop in Pisco, where so many buildings fell that streets were covered with small mountains of adobe bricks and broken furniture.
In Washington, President Bush offered condolences and said the United States was studying how best to send help. One American died in the quake, according to the State Department.
Electricity, water and phone service were down in much of southern Peru. The government rushed police, soldiers and doctors to the area, but traffic was paralyzed by giant cracks and fallen power lines on the Pan-American Highway. Large boulders also blocked Peru’s Central Highway to the Andes mountains.
In Chincha, a small town near Pisco only 25 miles from the quake’s epicenter, an AP Television News cameraman counted 30 bodies in a hospital patio. Hundreds of injured lay side by side on cots on walkways and in gardens outside hospital buildings, kept outside for fear that aftershocks could topple the cracked walls.
The quake toppled a wall in Chincha’s prison, allowing at least 600 prisoners to flee. Only 29 had been recaptured, a national prisons official said.
In Lima, 95 miles from the epicenter, only one death was recorded. But the furious two minutes of shaking prompted thousands to flee into the streets and sleep in public parks.
Scientists said the quake was a “megathrust” — a type of earthquake similar to the catastrophic Indian Ocean temblor in 2004 that generated deadly tsunami waves. “Megathrusts produce the largest earthquakes on the planet,” said USGS geophysicist Paul Earle.
Wednesday’s quake caused a tsunami as well, but scientists expected surges of no more than 1.6 feet in faraway Japan.
The last time a quake of magnitude 7.0 or larger struck Peru was in September 2005, when a magnitude 7.5 earthquake rocked the country’s northern jungle, killing four persons. In 2001, a 7.9-magnitude quake struck near the southern Andean city of Arequipa, killing 71.