IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Chile quake death toll jumps to 708

Residents recover items from the debris left by waves generated by a major earthquake, near the epicenter in Pelluhue
Residents of Pelluhue, Chile, comb the beach Sunday in search of belongings after a tsunami triggered by Saturday's quake washed over the town.Ivan Alvarado / Reuters
/ Source: NBC, msnbc.com and news services

Chile's president sent the army to help police combat looting on Sunday in the hard-hit city of Concepcion, and appealed for international help after the quake and tsunami that shattered cities and killed at least 708 people — double the estimate from Saturday night.

As tens of thousands faced a second night without drinking water, electricity or working toilets, President Michelle Bachelet said Chile needs field hospitals and temporary bridges, water purification plants and damage assessment experts, as well as rescuers to help relieve workers who have been laboring frantically for more than a day.

In Concepcion, firefighters looking for survivors in a toppled apartment block were forced to pause because of tear gas fired to stop looters, who were wheeling off everything from microwave ovens to canned milk at a damaged supermarket across the street.

Concepcion Mayor Jacqueline van Rysselberghe had earlier said the situation there was getting "out of control" due to shortages of basic supplies and called for the national government to help.

"We need the army. We can't have people defending their own possessions because it will be the law of the strongest," she said.

Bachelet's army directive includes a night curfew in Concepcion and several other areas.

To combat looting, Bachelet announced that essentials on the shelves of major supermarkets would be given away for free, under the supervision of authorities. Troops and police will also distribute food and water, she said.

The university in Concepcion was among the buildings that caught fire as gas and power lines snapped when the quake hit Saturday. Many streets were littered with rubble, inmates escaped from a nearby prison and police warned that criminals had been robbing banks.

Firefighters in Concepcion were about to lower a rescuer deep into the rubble of a 15-story apartment complex on Sunday when the scent of tear gas fired at looters across the street forced them to interrupt their efforts.

Police officer Jorge Guerra took names of the missing from a stream of tearful relatives and friends. He urged them to be optimistic because about two dozen people had been rescued.

"There are people alive. There are several people who are going to be rescued," he said — though the next people pulled from the wreckage were dead. Dozens more are feared trapped.

"It's sad, but because of the situation you have to confront the robberies and at the same time continue the search," Guerra said.

The sound of chain saws, power drills and sledgehammers breaking through concrete competed with the whoosh of a water cannon fired at looters and the shouts of crowds that found new ways into a four-story supermarket each time police retreated.

People, amidst tear gas, run away from police oficcers during looting in Concepcion, Chile, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010. A 8.8-magnitude earthquake hit Chile early Saturday. (AP Photo/Aliosha Marquez)Aliosha Marquez / AP

One woman ran off with a shopping cart piled high with slabs of unwrapped meat and cheese. A shirtless man carried a mattress on his head. Some of the looters pitched rocks at police armored vehicles.

Across the Bio Bio River in the city of San Pedro, looters cleared out a shopping mall. A video store was set ablaze, two automatic teller machines were broken open, a bank was robbed and a supermarket emptied, its floor littered with mashed plums, scattered dog food and smashed liquor bottles.

"It was a mob. They looted everything," said police Sgt. Rene Gutierrez, who had his men guarding the now-empty mall. "Now we're only here to protect the building — what's left of the building."

He said police had been slow to reach the looted mall because one bridge over the river was collapsed and the other so damaged they had to move cautiously.

Ingenious looters even used long tubes of bamboo and plastic to siphon gasoline from underground tanks at a closed gasoline station. Others rummaged through the station's restaurant.

Thieves attacked a flour mill in Concepcion — some toting away bags on their shoulders, others using bicycles or cars. One man packed a school bus with sacks of flour.

Beach towns washed away
Along several hundred miles of Chile's central and southern coast, towns were reporting massive damage from the tsunami that followed the magnitude 8.8 quake. Maule, a region south of the capital Santiago, had the most confirmed deaths: 541.

Television images showed cars tossed atop shattered homes and boats lifted far from the waterfront in the coastal towns of Pelluhue and in Constitucion, where 350 deaths alone were reported.

In Llo-Lleo, survivors were searching for family and friends at a campsite where 200 cabanas were washed away.

The town of Pichilemu was hit by a 9-foot-high wave, according to Barry Keller, an American seismologist who lives on a hill above the beach town. His family told msnbc.com that Keller said the tsunami caused massive destruction in the town.

Across much of central and southern Chile, tens of thousands of people camped outside overnight. Government-run television reported that 1.5 million homes had been destroyed or declared unsafe.

Tourists like Sylvia Dostal of Keizer, Ore., were also affected. "We had noticed some structural damage on floors 2,3,4,5,6," of the Santiago Marriott Hotel, she told msnbc.com. "Although we were assured that the damage was nothing to worry about, I am an architectural designer and I can tell you that, after several severe aftershocks, the integrity of any structure would be compromised after each jolt, or hit.

"However, it seems management felt otherwise," she added, "and even the elevators were made to function. We were not the only ones who felt uneasy, and the lobby was full of people who decided to spend the night there and not go to their rooms."

Paige Orwin, of Silverdale, Wash., told msnbc.com that she was among 40 U.S. students staying at a Santiago hotel with a study abroad program. "The building swayed like it had grown legs and was hopping away," she said of being woken up. "My roommate joined me a few moments later, saying she thought I'd been shaking her."

"We held onto each other in that doorway for almost three minutes," she added. "I watched a picture frame bang against the wall and wondered if the building was going to come down with us in it."

CORRECTS LOCATION; map locates offshore epicenter in, Chile, where an earthquake has struck

The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake struck 56 miles northeast of the city of Concepcion at a depth of 22 miles at 3:34 a.m. (1:34 a.m. ET) on Saturday. The quake shook buildings in Argentina's capital of Buenos Aires, and was felt as far away as Sao Paulo in Brazil — 1,800 miles to the east.

"It came in waves and lasted so long. Three minutes is an eternity. We kept worrying that it was getting stronger, like a terrifying Hollywood movie," Santiago resident Dolores Cuevas said.

The quake ranks as one of the most powerful on record, and . The wave caused no damage in other countries, after precautionary evacuations of hundreds of thousands of people.

Two million people in Chile have been affected by the earthquake, said Bachelet, adding that it would take officials several days to evaluate the "enormous quantity of damage." She declared a "state of catastrophe" in central Chile.

The earthquake has raised a daunting first challenge for billionaire Sebastian Pinera, who was elected Chile's president in January in a shift to the political right and who takes office in two weeks.

"We're preparing ourselves for an additional task, a task that wasn't part of our governing plan: assuming responsibility for rebuilding our country," Pinera said late Saturday. "It's going to be a very big task and we're going to need resources."

The government faces the task of helping Chileans rebuild an estimated half a million homes that were severely damaged as well as hundreds of buckled roads and collapsed bridges.

"It was like the end of the world," said Vicente Acuna, 76, in the southern town of Talca.

More than 100 aftershocks were reported in the hours after the quake.

In the capital of Santiago, 200 miles northeast of the epicenter, a car dangled from a collapsed overpass, the national Fine Arts Museum was badly damaged and an apartment building's two-story parking lot pancaked, smashing about 50 cars whose alarms rang incessantly.

Eight hospitals across the region were forced to close due to quake damage, and dozens more saw damage but were still open.

Santiago reopened its international airport to a few flights after being closed Saturday due to significant damage. Flights were being allowed to land but passengers were not allowed inside the terminal.

In the mainland coastal town of Vichato, in the BioBio region, waves flooded hundreds of houses. Tsunami waves also swept into the port town of Talcahuano, causing serious damage to port facilities and lifting fishing boats out of the water, local television reported.

ADN Radio reported many beach towns were wiped out, including Matanzas, a wind- and kite-surfing destination that attracts many foreigners.

An earthquake also hit northern Argentina, causing a wall to collapse in Salta, killing an 8-year-old boy and injuring two of his friends, police said. The U.S. Geological Survey said the magnitude-6.3 temblor was a separate, "triggered earthquake" caused by ground waves from the Chilean quake.

Scientists say the Chilean quake was a "megathrust" — similar to the 2004 Indian Ocean temblor that spawned a catastrophic tsunami.

Megathrust earthquakes occur in subduction zones where plates of the Earth's crust grind and dive. Saturday's jolt occurred when the Nazca plate dove beneath the South American plate, releasing tremendous energy.

In 1960, Chile was hit by the world's biggest earthquake since records dating back to 1900. The 9.5-magnitude quake devastated the south-central city of Valdivia, killing more than 1,600 people and sending a tsunami that battered Easter Island 2,300 miles off Chile's Pacific coast and continued as far as Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines.