Ecuador earthquake toll expected to rise 'in a considerable way'

Death toll rises in Ecuador
Death toll rises in Ecuador

Ecuador's president rushed home Sunday to coordinate rescue and recovery efforts after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake killed at least 272 people and injured thousands more.

In an address from the stricken city of Portoviejo, President Rafael Correa said that rescue crews believed that some people remained alive underneath collapsed buildings.

"The pain is immense, but the spirit of the Ecuadorian people is greater," Correa said. "We will move forward from this."

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More than 2,000 people were injured in the earthquake, which hit the South American country's northwest coast at 6:58 p.m. Saturday (7:58 p.m. ET), Vice President Jorge Glas said Sunday. The number of casualties was expected to continue rising as authorities scoured the region for a long list of missing people, he said.

Correa warned the death toll would "surely rise, and in a considerable way."

The State Department said there were no reports of U.S. citizens killed in the quake, while Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said two Canadians were killed.

The earthquake quake hit about a half-hour after a smaller 4.5-magnitude quake was recorded along the coast south of Muisne, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The country's Geophysics Institute said it recorded 230 aftershocks, some strong, as of Sunday night.

Most of the deaths were in the province of Manabi, where Portoviejo and Manta are located, according to Glas.

Correa, who cut short a trip to Italy to return home, said the immediate priority was the search and rescue mission. "Everything can be rebuilt, but lives cannot be recovered, and that's what hurts the most," he said.

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Standing next to a wrecked building in Portoviejo, Manuel Quijije said his older brother, Junior, was trapped under a pile of twisted steel and concrete with two relatives.

"For God's sake help me find my family," the 27-year-old said. "We managed to see his arms and legs. They're his, they're buried, but the police kicked us out because they say there's a risk the rest of the building will collapse. We're not afraid. We're desperate. We want to pull out our family."

Alice Gandelman and Bill Freedman of Vallejo, California, were on vacation in the seaside town of San Clemente when the quake hit.

"We're from the Bay Area. We feel earthquakes," Gandelman told NBC station KCRA of Sacramento. "But this was pretty intense — more than anything we've felt in the Bay Area."

Freedman told NBC Bay Area that he saw entire buildings that had been caved in and crumbled cement littering the town.

"It started, and there was a big boom, and everyone ran out of the restaurant," Freedman said. "And then it went completely dark."

Freedman said many of the buildings were made of cement, like the sidewalks, which he said he saw crumbling before his eyes.

"We had no way to get out. We had no place to go," he said. "And we had to go back and get our stuff, so if a tsunami had happened, I don't think we would have made it out."

The quake damaged El Rodeo prison in the city of Portoviejo, allowing about 100 prisoners to escape, Justice Minister Ledy Zúñiga said. About 30 had been recaptured by Sunday night, Zúñiga said.

Seeking security from any unrest, about 400 residents of Portoviejo gathered Sunday night on the tarmac of the city's former airport, where authorities handed out water, mattresses and food.

Shantytowns and cheaply constructed brick and concrete homes were reduced to rubble along the quake's path. In the coastal town of Chamanga, authorities estimated than 90 percent of homes had damage, while in Guayaquil a shopping center's roof fell in and a collapsed highway overpass crushed a car, killing the driver.

Related: See the destruction of the earthquake that recently hit Japan

Originally published