A magnitude 7.9 earthquake shook southern Peru on Wednesday, killing at least 48 people and injuring 350 others in the cities of Ica and Pisco and sparking tsunami warnings for the Pacific coast of South America and the distant Hawaiian Islands.
Peruvian media reported that several people were killed when the bell tower of an 18th century church toppled in Ica, about 150 miles south of Lima. Dozens more were injured when hospital buildings collapsed and power lines fell in Ica, leaving the city of 200,000 in darkness as emergency workers searched for victims.
Many buildings were damaged in Pisco and in Chincha Alta, near the earthquake’s epicenter just off the Peruvian coast about 100 miles south of Lima.
The death toll rose throughout the evening.
“We have the figure of 48 dead and 350 injured,” Carlos Cordova, chief of Peru’s fire department, told Channel 5 television.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake, which struck at 6:41 p.m. local time, occurred on a historically active thrust fault about 25 miles below the Earth’s surface. Two aftershocks measuring 5.9 and 5.8 on the Richter scale struck less than 30 minutes later.
Officials said the quake generated a 10-inch wave that quickly dissipated along the coast. Tsunami alerts were canceled in South and Central America, but an advisory remained in effect for Hawaii late Wednesday.
Peruvian authorities ordered the evacuation of several seaside communities, including one near Callao, the country’s largest port, where at least 70 buildings were damaged and dozens of people injured as structures collapsed, according to Gen. David Salazar, commander of the national police. Colombia’s southernmost port, Tumaco, also was ordered evacuated.
In the port city of Pisco, residents fled to higher ground even as authorities issued reports that the region was not in danger of being hit by tidal waves.
“We ask for calm,” President Alan Garcia said in a nationally televised address as he declared a state of emergency in Ica and the surrounding region. With repeated aftershocks striking the region, he said, Peruvians should leave coastal areas “as a precaution. . . without panic.”
Lima media broadcast calls from coastal residents worried about tidal waves. Fishermen called in to Radio Programas del Peru saying the ocean looked “strange.”
A landslide blocked the coastal highway linking Lima to Pisco and other cities south of the capital. And the temblor sent thousands of people scurrying from high-rises in Lima, where two people were reported dead.
“We were on the fourth floor, and it caught us totally by surprise,” said Patricia Miyashiro, a Lima office worker. “All the books fell, and we ran out to the street.”
Some buildings were damaged in central Lima, and there were reports of fires at a clothing warehouse.
USGS officials said the quake took place “at the boundary between the Nazca and South American tectonic plates.” The South American plate is creeping west, up and over the Nazca plate, at the rate of 3 inches per year, according to USGS.
Ica, a provincial capital with about 200,000 residents, appeared to take the hardest hit in Wednesday’s quake. Officials said the city’s cathedral, whose El Señor de Luren chapel is the focal point of an annual pilgrimage in October, was severely damaged.
At least one of the church’s towers collapsed. According to news reports, some people had gathered at the church for the celebration of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a Roman Catholic day of obligation celebrated Aug. 15.
Witnesses said that in the hours after the quake the city was a picture of desolation and destruction, with downed power poles blocking streets and looters roaming the business district.
“The hospitals have collapsed, the doctors are treating patients outside the four hospitals,” reporter Gustavo Sulca of America TV told Peruvian viewers from Ica. “People are roaming about the medical centers seeking help.”
The Lima newspaper El Comercio reported on its website that Ica residents had gathered in parks and other open areas as aftershocks continued late Wednesday.
President Garcia said he was sending the country’s health minister and two other Cabinet members to Ica.
Garcia ordered off-duty police to report to Lima to prevent looting and ordered public schools closed today until inspectors could guarantee their buildings’ safety.
Special correspondent León reported from Lima and staff writer Tobar from Mexico City. Andrés D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.