The death toll from Ecuador's biggest earthquake in decades has soared to 272 as survivors cobbled together makeshift coffins to bury loved ones, lined up for water and sought shelter beside the rubble of their shattered homes.
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 destroying buildings, bridges and roads.
"Ecuador has been hit tremendously hard ... This is the greatest tragedy in the last 67 years," said a shaken President Rafael Correa, who rushed back to Ecuador from a visit to Italy.
"There are signs of life in much of the rubble and that is the priority," Correa said in a televised address to the nation.
He confirmed 272 deaths and 2068 injured and said he feared those figures would increase.
Coastal areas nearest the epicentre were hit hardest, especially Pedernales, a rustic tourist spot with beaches and palm trees now laden with debris from its pastel-coloured houses.
Dazed residents recounted a violent shake, followed by a sudden collapse of buildings that trapped people in wreckage.
"You could hear people screaming from the rubble," Agustin Robles said as he waited in a queue of 40 people for water outside a stadium in Pedernales.
"There was a pharmacy where people were stuck and we couldn't do anything."
Authorities said there were more than 160 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.
As darkness set in and rain began to fall, survivors bundled up to spend the night next to their destroyed homes. Many had earlier queued up for food, water and blankets outside the blue-and-white stadium.
Inside the stadium, tents housed the dead and medical teams treated hundreds of survivors. About 91 people died in Pedernales and some 60 per cent of houses were destroyed, according to Police Chief General Milton Zarate.
"We heard the warning so luckily we were in the street because the entire house collapsed. We don't have anything," said Ana Farias, 23, the mother of 16-month-old twins, as she collected water, food and blankets from rescuers.
"We're going to have to sleep outside today."