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Magnitude-8.8 quake throws Chile into chaos

TALCA, Chile - One of the largest earthquakes ever recorded tore apart houses, bridges and highways in central Chile yesterday and sent a tsunami racing halfway around the world.

Chileans near the epicenter were tossed about as if shaken by a giant, and authorities said at least 214 people were dead.

The magnitude-8.8 quake was felt as far away as Sao Paulo in Brazil - 1,800 miles to the east. The full extent of damage remained unclear as scores of aftershocks shuddered across the Andean nation.

President Michelle Bachelet declared a "state of catastrophe" in central Chile but said the government has not asked for assistance from other countries. If it does, President Barack Obama said the United States "will be there."

In Chile, new apartment buildings slumped and fell. Flames devoured a prison. Millions of people fled into streets darkened by the failure of power lines. The collapse of bridges tossed and crushed cars and trucks, and complicated efforts to reach quake-damaged areas by road.

Officials in Bachelet's administration said 500,000 homes were severely damaged.

In Talca, just 65 miles from the epicenter, people sleeping in bed suddenly felt like they were flying through major airplane turbulence as their belongings cascaded around them from the shuddering walls at 3:34 a.m. local time.

A deafening roar rose from the earth as buildings groaned and clattered. The sound of screams was confused with the crash of plates and windows.

Then the earth stilled, silence returned and a smell of moist dust rose in the streets, where stunned survivors took refuge.

Also near the epicenter was Concepción, one of the country's largest cities, where a 15-story building collapsed, leaving a few floors intact.

"I was on the eighth floor and all of a sudden I was down here," said Fernando Abarzua, marveling that he escaped with no major injuries.

In the capital of Santiago, 200 miles to the northeast, 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.

The jolt set off a tsunami that swamped San Juan Bautista village on Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile, killing at least five people and leaving 11 missing, said Guillermo de la Masa, head of the government emergency bureau for the Valparaiso region.

It then raced across the Pacific, setting off alarm sirens in Hawaii, Polynesia and Tonga and prompting warnings across all 53 nations ringing the vast ocean.

USGS geophysicist Robert Williams said the Chilean quake was hundreds of times more powerful than Haiti's magnitude-7 quake on Jan. 12, though it was deeper and cost fewer lives.

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