Chileans recall moment of 'nightmare' quake

  • 18/09/2015
Twelve people died in the quake (Reuters)
Twelve people died in the quake (Reuters)

Traumatised Chileans have described the terrifying moment a powerful earthquake hit, killing at least 12 people and triggering tsunami waves that ravaged long stretches of the coast.

The 8.3-magnitude offshore earthquake on Wednesday evening (local time) was the sixth strongest in the history of geologically volatile Chile and the most powerful anywhere in the world this year, officials said.

Close to one million people were evacuated from Pacific coastal areas as a precaution as Chile sounded a tsunami alert, with warnings issued as far away as Japan and New Zealand.

Residents in hardest-hit central Chile took refuge on high ground as aftershocks jolted the country all night and into Thursday.

Maria Zamorano, 60, recounted how she and her large family ran from the shoreline in Coquimbo to save themselves from the surging tsunami waves.

"If we had stayed here we would have perished," she told AFP, as people slowly and warily returned to see what was left of their homes.

The quake occurred at a shallow depth and the epicentre was 228 kilometres north of the capital Santiago, a city of 6.6 million people, where there were scenes of pandemonium as thousands fled swaying buildings.

In the hours that followed, tsunami waves of up to 4.5 metres came crashing onshore in Coquimbo region, 400 kilometres north of Santiago, causing extensive damage to the region's port.

Eight of the 12 victims were in Coquimbo.

Fishing boats, trucks, cars and the remains of dozens of houses were among the debris bobbing up and down in Coquimbo city's wrecked waterfront on Thursday.

There were similar scenes of destruction in the badly hit coastal town of Illapel.

"It was a nightmare," Maria Ramirez told AFP as she swept up debris outside her house.

"We felt the tremors for a long time, too long. And then all the aftershocks; it was terrible.

"I couldn't stay standing, but luckily we made it out alive."

President Michelle Bachelet headed to the quake-hit area to assess the relief efforts and Secretary of State John Kerry says the United States is ready to help.

Hundreds of homes were declared uninhabitable or destroyed, as authorities tot up the human, emotional and financial cost.

Chile lies on what is known as the "Ring of Fire" - an arc of fault lines that circles the Pacific Basin and is prone to frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.