A powerful earthquake toppled houses and devastated villages in southern India before dawn today, burying hundreds of people under their collapsed homes.
As many as 500 people could be dead, the chief minister of the state of Maharashtra was quoted as saying by the United News of India news agency. An officer of the state police control room also said 500 were feared dead.
The quake, which registered a magnitude 6.4, occurred at 3:56 a.m. local time about 620 miles southeast of Bombay, India’s largest city and its financial capital.
At least three aftershocks were felt four hours later in the eastern districts of Maharashtra.
The worst-hit area was Killari, a village of 10,000 people, where 80% of the buildings collapsed, according to an aide to a Maharashtra state minister from the district. Killari is about 435 miles east of Bombay.
Sharad Pawar, the chief minister who is the state’s highest elected official, told United News that he had ordered rescue equipment rushed to the area from surrounding districts.
All India Radio said 22 people were confirmed dead in the district of Osmanabad and five more people died in Latur, both on the eastern side of the state.
Harish Gupta, director of the National Geophysical Research Institute in Hyderabad, said the epicenter was near Latur, 35 miles south of Killari.
Jeevan Vaonkari, the police chief of Gulbarga, 155 miles south of Latur, said his city was in panic after the quake struck.
People were in the streets before dawn celebrating the festival of Ganesh and immersing idols of the elephant-faced god in water.
“Everyone ran out of their homes. They are afraid that another big quake will come,” he said in a telephone interview. He said the wall of one old temple collapsed, but only two people were injured.
All India Radio quoted S.N. Chatterjee, director general of the India Meteorological Department, as saying that although the tremor was of only moderate intensity, the geological structure of the area means that considerable damage is likely.
Today’s quake was the strongest in India since October, 1991, when more than 700 people were killed in a quake that struck the northern Himalayan foothills.
That quake destroyed some 18,000 homes in 400 villages.
Indian officials registered the 1991 quake at 6.1; the U.S. Geological Survey measured it at 7.1.
On Dec. 11, 1967, a magnitude 6.5 quake killed 170 people in southern India. That shock was felt about 170 miles west of the epicenter of today’s quake.