The death toll from Ecuador’s biggest earthquake in decades reached 235 on Sunday as rescuers using tractors and bare hands hunted desperately for survivors in shattered coastal towns.
The 7.8 magnitude quake struck off the Pacific coast on Saturday and was felt around the Andean nation of 16 million people, causing panic as far away as the highland capital Quito and collapsing buildings and roads in a swath of western towns.
President Rafael Correa rushed home from a trip to Italy to supervise the emergency. “The immediate priority is to rescue people in the rubble,” he said. “Everything can be rebuilt, but lives cannot be recovered, and that’s what hurts the most.”
Visiting the quake zone, Vice President Jorge Glas said 235 had died and more than 1,500 people were injured.
Coastal areas nearest the epicenter were worst affected, especially Pedernales, a rustic tourist spot with beaches and palm trees, which appeared largely flattened.
“There are people trapped in various places, and we are starting rescue operations,” Glas said.
Authorities said there were 163 aftershocks, mainly in the Pedernales area. A state of emergency was declared in six provinces.
The quake has piled pain on the economy of OPEC’s smallest member, already reeling from low oil prices, with economic growth this year projected at near-zero.