TALCA, Chile – A devastating earthquake struck Chile early Saturday, toppling homes, collapsing bridges and plunging trucks into the fractured earth. A tsunami set off by the magnitude-8.8 quake threatened every nation around the Pacific Ocean — roughly a quarter of the globe.
Interior Minister Edmundo Perez Yoma said the most powerful quake to hit the country in a half-century killed at least 82 people, but the death toll was rising quickly.
In the town of Talca, just 65 miles (105 kilometers) from the epicenter, Associated Press journalist Roberto Candia said it felt as if a giant had grabbed him and shaken him.
The town's historic center, filled with buildings of adobe mud and straw, largely collapsed, though most of those were businesses that were not inhabited during the 3:34 a.m. (1:34 a.m. EST, 0634 GMT) quake. Neighbors pulled at least five people from the rubble while emergency workers, themselves disoriented, asked for information from reporters.
Many roads were destroyed, and electricity, water and phone lines were cut to many areas — meaning there was no word of death or damage from many outlying areas.
In the Chilean capital of Santiago, 200 miles (325 kilometers) 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.
Experts warned that a tsunami could strike anywhere in the Pacific, and Hawaii could face its largest waves since 1964 starting at 11:19 a.m. (4:19 p.m. EST, 2119 GMT), according to Charles McCreery, director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.
Tsunami waves were likely to hit Asian, Australian and New Zealand shores within 24 hours of the earthquake. The U.S. West Coast and Alaska, too, were threatened.
A huge wave swept into a populated area in the Robinson Crusoe Islands, 410 miles (660 kilometers) off the Chilean coast, President Michelle Bachelet said, but there were no immediate reports of major damage.
Bachelet had no information on the number of people injured. She declared a "state of catastrophe" in central Chile.
"We have had a huge earthquake, with some aftershocks," she said from an emergency response center. She said Chile has not asked for assistance from other countries, and urged Chileans not to panic.
"The system is functioning. People should remain calm. We're doing everything we can with all the forces we have. Any information we will share immediately," she said.
Powerful aftershocks rattled Chile's coast — 24 of them magnitude 5 or greater and one reaching magnitude 6.9 — the U.S. Geological Survey reported.
In Santiago, modern buildings are built to withstand earthquakes, but many older ones were heavily damaged, including the Nuestra Senora de la Providencia church, whose bell tower collapsed. A bridge just outside the capital also collapsed, and at least one car flipped upside down.
Several hospitals were evacuated due to earthquake damage, Bachelet said.
Santiago's airport will remain closed for at least 24 hours, airport director Eduardo del Canto said. The passenger terminal suffered major damage, he told Chilean television in a telephone interview. TV images show smashed windows, partially collapsed ceilings and pedestrian walkways destroyed.
Santiago's subway was shut as well and hundreds of buses were trapped at a terminal by a damaged bridge, Transportation and Telecommunications Minister told Chilean television. He urged Chileans to make phone calls or travel only when absolutely necessary.
Candia was visiting his wife's 92-year-old grandmother in Talca when the quake struck.
"Everything was falling — chests of drawers, everything," he said. "I was sleeping with my 8-year-old son Diego and I managed to cover his head with a pillow. It was like major turbulence on an airplane."
In Concepcion, 70 miles (115 kilometers) from the epicenter, nurses and residents pushed the injured through the streets on stretchers. Others walked around in a daze wrapped in blankets, some carrying infants in their arms.
Concepcion, Chile's second-largest city, is 60 miles (95 kilometers) from the ski town of Chillan, a gateway to Andean ski resorts that was destroyed in a 1939 earthquake.
The quake also shook buildings in Argentina's capital of Buenos Aires, 900 miles (1,400 kilometers) away on the Atlantic side of South America.
Marco Vidal, a program director for Grand Circle Travel who was traveling with a group of 34 Americans, was on the 19th floor of the Crown Plaza Santiago hotel when the quake struck.
"All the things start to fall. The lamps, everything, was going on the floor," he said. "I felt terrified."
Cynthia Iocono, from Linwood, Pennsylvania, said she first thought the quake was a train.
"But then I thought, `Oh, there's no train here.' And then the lamps flew off the dresser and my TV flew off onto the floor and crashed."
The quake struck after concert-goers had left South America's leading music festival in the coastal city of Vina del Mar, but it caught partiers leaving a disco.
"It was very bad. People were screaming. Some people were running, others appeared paralyzed. I was one of them," Julio Alvarez told Radio Cooperativa.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center called for "urgent action to protect lives and property" in Hawaii, which is among 53 nations and territories subject to tsunami warnings.
"Sea level readings indicate a tsunami was generated. It may have been destructive along coasts near the earthquake epicenter and could also be a threat to more distant coasts," the warning center said. It did not expect a tsunami along the west of the U.S. or Canada.
The largest earthquake ever recorded struck the same area of Chile on May 22, 1960. The magnitude-9.5 quake killed 1,655 people and left 2 million homeless. The tsunami that it caused killed people in Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines and caused damage to the west coast of the United States.
Eva Vergara reported from Santiago, Chile. Associated Press Television News cameraman Mauricio Cuevas in Santiago and AP writer Sandy Kozel in Washington contributed to this story.