Powerful earthquake kills at least 5 in Mexico

A major earthquake off Mexico’s southern coast killed at least five people, with the president saying Friday it was the biggest in a century to hit the country. Houses toppled and the quake produced tsunami waves and sent people running into the streets in panic.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported the earthquake’s magnitude as 8.1, but President Enrique Pena Nieto says it was 8.2, making it the largest in Mexico in 100 years. He also said it was bigger than the one in 1985, when thousands were killed in four Mexican states.

“It was a large-scale earthquake,” Pena Nieto said. “It had a bigger magnitude than the one Mexicans knew in 1985.”

He said that 62 aftershocks followed the quake and it’s possible one as strong as 7.2 could hit in the next 24 hours. Pena Nieto also said that serious damage had been caused and that 1 million customers initially had been without power following the quake, but that electricity had been restored to 800,000 of them.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake struck at 11:49 p.m. Thursday local time and its epicentre was 165 kilometres west of Tapachula in southern Chiapas state, not far from Guatemala. It had a depth of 35 kilometres.

Chiapas Gov. Manuel Velasco said that three people were killed in San Cristobal, including two women who died when a house and a wall collapsed. He called on people living near the coast to leave their houses as a protective measure.

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“There are damages in hospitals that have lost energy,” he said. “Homes, schools and hospitals have been affected.”

Two young children were also killed in Tobasco state. Tabasco Gov. Arturo Nunez said that one of the children died when a wall collapsed, and the other was a baby who died in a children’s hospital that lost electricity, cutting off the supply to the infant’s ventilator.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center says waves of one metre above the tide level were measured off Salina Cruz, Mexico. Smaller tsunami waves were observed on the coast or measured by ocean gauges in several other places. 

In neighbouring Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales spoke on national television to call for calm while emergency crews checked for damage. Local radio in the Central American country reported one death, but it could not be confirmed.

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Patients and doctors of a hospital in Villahermosa, Mexico, remain in the open after the quake shook the country’s southern coast, on Friday morning. (EPA-EFE)

“We have reports of some damage and the death of one person, even though we still don’t have exact details,” Morales said. He said the possible death occurred in San Marcos state near the border with Mexico.

Meanwhile, authorities in Oaxaca reported that a hotel had collapsed, but no one has been reported dead. 

Photos from the country’s civil defence force showed the crumbling facade of the Anel hotel in Matias Romero and split in half. 

Earlier, Oaxaca Gov. Alejandro Murat said that some people were able to escape from the hotel and authorities were working to determine if they were any casualties or missing people.

‘Loud, thunderous cracks’

The quake was so powerful that frightened residents in the distant capital city of Mexico City, one of the world’s largest cities more than 1,000 kilometres from the epicentre, fled apartment buildings and gathered in groups in the street. Sections of the city were without electricity. 

People ran out into the streets in pyjamas and alarms sounded after the quake struck just before midnight, one witness told Reuters.

“They were scurrying through the hallways, leaving their buildings as quickly as possible in single file, going out into the middle of the street and trying to avoid high power cables because those are hanging all above us,” said freelance journalist Franc Contreras in a telephone interview with CBC News from Mexico City.

“In some parts of the city, people were reporting hearing loud, thunderous cracks coming from concrete buildings,” he added. 

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Members of the Mexican army look at damage caused by the earthquake in the Port of Veracuz on Thursday. (Victoria Razo/AFP/Getty Images)

Helicopters hovered overhead a few minutes later, apparently looking for damage to buildings in the city built on a spongy, drained lake bed. In one central neighbourhood, dozens of people stood outside after the quake, some wrapped in blankets against the cool night air. Children were crying.

“I had never been anywhere where the earth moved so much. At first I laughed, but when the lights went out I didn’t know what to do,” said Luis Carlos Briceno, an architect, 31, who was visiting Mexico City.

“I nearly fell over.”

Lucy Jones, a seismologist in California who works with the U.S. Geological Survey, said such a quake was to be expected.

“Off the west coast of Mexico is what’s called the subduction zone, the Pacific Plate is moving under the Mexican peninsula,” she said.

“It’s a very flat fault, so it’s a place that has big earthquakes relatively often because of that.”

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