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February 27, 2010

Chile struck by one of strongest earthquakes ever

TALCA, Chile — One of the largest earthquakes ever recorded tore apart houses, bridges and highways in central Chile on Saturday and sent a tsunami racing halfway around the world. Chileans near the epicenter were tossed about as if shaken by a giant, and the head of the emergency agency said authorities believed at least 300 people were dead.

The magnitude-8.8 quake was felt as far away as Sao Paulo in Brazil — 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) to the east. The full extent of damage remained unclear as dozens of aftershocks — one nearly as powerful as Haiti's devastating Jan. 12 earthquake — shuddered across the disaster-prone Andean nation.

President Michelle Bachelet declared a "state of catastrophe" in central Chile but said the government had not asked for assistance from other countries. If it does, President Barack Obama said, the United States "will be there." Around the world, leaders echoed his sentiment.

In Chile, newly built apartment buildings slumped and fell. Flames devoured a prison. Millions of people fled into streets darkened by the failure of power lines. The collapse of bridges tossed and crushed cars and trucks, and complicated efforts to reach quake-damaged areas by road.

At least 214 people were killed and 15 were missing as of Saturday evening, Bachelet said in a national address on television. While that remained the official estimate, Carmen Fernandez, head of the National Emergency Agency, said later: "We think the real figure tops 300. And we believe this will continue to grow."

Bachelet also said 1.5 million people had been affected by the quake, and officials in her administration said 500,000 homes were severely damaged.

In Talca, just 65 miles (105 kilometers) from the epicenter, people sleeping in bed suddenly felt like they were flying through major airplane turbulence as their belongings cascaded around them from the shuddering walls at 3:34 a.m. (1:34 a.m. EST, 0634 GMT).

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