SANTIAGO - A massive magnitude-8.8 earthquake struck south-central Chile early on Saturday, killing at least 85 people, knocking down buildings, homes and hospitals, and triggering a tsunami.
Local television TV Chile reported that a 15-storey building collapsed in the hardest-hit city of Concepcion, where cracks opened up in the streets.
Buildings caught fire, road bridges collapsed and residents huddled in streets full of rubble of masonry and glass from destroyed homes. Many were terrified by powerful aftershocks and desperately trying to call friends and family.
President Michelle Bachelet said there were more than 85 deaths just in the Maule region at the quake's epicenter, and that more were possible. Telephone and power lines were down, making it difficult to assess the full extent of the damage close to the epicenter.
Chile is the world's No. 1 copper producer, and the quake halted operations at two major mines.
Never in my life have I experienced a quake like this, it's like the end of the world, one man told local television from the city of Temuco, where the quake damaged homes and forced staff to evacuate the regional hospital.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake struck 70 miles northeast of Concepcion at a depth of 22 miles at 3:34 a.m. (0634 GMT).
The capital Santiago, about 200 miles north of the epicenter, was also badly hit. The international airport was closed for at least 24 hours as the quake destroyed passenger walkways and shook glass out of doors and windows.
Chile's main copper producing region and some of the world's largest copper mines are in the far north of the country near its border with Peru, but there are also major copper deposits near Santiago.
Production was halted at the Los Bronces and El Soldado copper mines, owned by Anglo American Plc following the quake, but Chile's biggest copper mine, Escondida, was operating normally.
Chile produces about 34 percent of world supply of copper, which is used in electronics, cars and refrigerators.
Bachelet said a huge wave hit the Juan Fernandez islands. Radio stations reported serious damage on the archipelago, where Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned in the 18th Century inspiring the novel Robinson Crusoe.
Bachelet, who was heading to the worst-affected area, said residents were also being evacuated from coastal areas of Chile's remote Easter Island, a popular tourist destination in the Pacific famous for its towering Moai stone statues.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a Pacific-wide tsunami warning for countries in Latin America, and as far away as the U.S. state of Hawaii as well as Japan, Russia, Philippines, Indonesia and the South Pacific. French Polynesia was also put on alert.
Chile probably got the brunt force of the tsunami already. So probably the worst has already happened in Chile, said Victor Sardina, geophysicist at the warning center.
The tsunami was pretty big too. We reported some places around 8 feet. And it's quite possible it would be higher in other areas, he added.
An earthquake of magnitude 8 or over can cause tremendous damage, the USGS says. The quake that devastated Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince on January 12 was measured as magnitude 7.0.
Bachelet urged people to stay calm and to remain at home to avoid road accidents. With a quake of this size we undoubtedly can't rule out more deaths and probably injuries, she said.
Local television showed a building in flames in Concepcion, one of Chile's largest cities with around 670,000 inhabitants. Some residents looted pharmacies and a collapsed grains silo, hauling off bags of wheat, television images showed.
Broken glass and chunks of concrete and brick were strewn across roads and several strong aftershocks rattled jittery residents in the hours after the initial quake.
In the moments after the quake, people streamed onto the streets of the capital, hugging each other and crying.
My house is completely destroyed, everything fell over ... it has been totally destroyed. Me and wife huddled in a corner and after hours they rescued us, said one elderly man in central Santiago.
There were blackouts in parts of Santiago and communications were still down in the area closest to the epicenter. Emergency officials said buildings in the historic quarters of two southern cities had been badly damaged and local radio said three hospitals had partially collapsed.
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 1,655 people and sending a tsunami which battered Easter Island 2,300 miles off Chile's Pacific seaboard and continued as far as Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines.
Saturday's quake shook buildings as far away as Argentina's Andean provinces of Mendoza and San Juan. A series of strong aftershocks rocked Chile's coastal region from Valdivia in southern to Valparaiso, about 500 miles to the north.
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington, Helen Popper, Kevin Gray and Guido Nejamkis in Buenos Aires)