Portoviejo: The biggest earthquake in Ecuador in decades has killed 272 people - but that toll will 'certainly' rise even further, the President has said as overwhelmed rescuers struggled to pull survivors out of the destruction.
The 7.8-magnitude quake struck the small, oil-producing South American nation late Saturday, shattering hotels and homes along its Pacific coast popular with tourists and reducing several towns to rubble.
More than 2,000 people were injured as structures tumbled during the quake or its dozens of aftershocks.
The capital Quito, farther inland, escaped with cracked walls and power outages, and the country's strategic oil facilities appeared unscathed, officials said yesterday.
But along the coast, the devastation prompted neighboring Colombia, as well as quake-experienced Mexico and El Salvador, to rush in rescue personnel to help out.
In Portoviejo, a city 15 kilometres (10 miles) from the coast, the temblor knocked down walls in a prison, allowing 100 inmates to escape.
Some were recaptured or returned later, but police were hunting the others, Justice Minister Ledy Zuniga tweeted. Elsewhere in hard-hit Portoviejo, the stench of decaying bodies began to fill the tropical air as rescuers raced to find survivors.
"We have already recovered three dead and we believe there are 10 to 11 people still trapped," said one worker digging through the debris of what used to be a six-story hotel called El Gato.
Officials have declared a state of emergency in the worst-hit provinces, and a national state of "exception," both of which suspend certain civil rights and liberties to allow security forces and officials to react faster.
President Rafael Correa visited the disaster zone last Sunday, after cutting short an official trip to the Vatican and flying home.
He said the latest toll of 272 dead "will certainly rise and probably in a considerable way" in the hours ahead.
Among the worst-hit towns was Pedernales, where Mayor Gabriel Alcivar estimated there were up to 400 more dead yet to be confirmed, many under the rubble of hotels that collapsed.
"Pedernales is devastated. Buildings have fallen down, especially hotels where there are lots of tourists staying. There are lots of dead bodies," he told local media.
Soldiers patrolled the beach town, and the Red Cross and the army had set up a center to treat the injured and receive bodies. Two Canadians were among those killed by the quake, their country's government said.