SANTIAGO: The 8.3-magnitude earthquake that struck Wednesday off the coast of Chile has left at least five dead, a million evacuated and one person missing, an official said.
The toll was given in the early hours of Thursday by Deputy Interior Minister Mahmoud Aleuy. He said the figures were preliminary.
Thousands of terrified residents rushed out onto the streets in the capital Santiago. The quake was felt as far away as Argentina, where buildings also swayed.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet put the death toll at three, with 10 more injured, and said she would go on Thursday to the affected zones.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) put the shallow offshore quake at a magnitude of 8.3 and said it hit just 228 kilometers (about 140 miles) north of Santiago, a city of 6.6 million people.
The quake, which struck at 7:54 pm (2254 GMT), hit at a depth of eight kilometers, USGS said. Seismologists also reported multiple aftershocks, some of them above 6.0.
The Chilean government put the main earthquake at 8.4 on the Richter scale.
“The motion began lightly, then stronger and stronger,” said Santiago resident Jeannette Matte.
“We were on the 12th floor and we were very afraid because it was not stopping. First it was from side to side, then it was like little jumps.”
Interior Minister Jorge Burgos said shortly after the quake hit that the evacuation of coastal towns and cities had been ordered as a precautionary measure. Classes were cancelled in coastal areas.
“We know there could be more aftershocks and so we must continue to evaluate the situation minute-by-minute,” Bachelet said.
The quake was felt as far away as Buenos Aires, about 1,400 kilometers away, while a tsunami warning was initially in place for the whole of Chile and Peru´s Pacific coastline.
Among the dead were a woman in Illapel, close to the epicenter, and an 86-year-old man in Santiago, where there were scenes of pandemonium as thousands fled swaying buildings.
Hardest-hit Illapel, a coastal city of 30,000, saw its electricity fail and several homes were damaged.
In coastal La Serena, in the north of Chile, “people were running in all directions,” said resident Gloria Navarro.
A similar fear seized residents in Argentina.
“We went into a panic and the floor kept moving. We went out into the hallway and down the stairs,” Celina Atrave, 65, who lives in a 25-story high-rise near downtown Buenos Aires, told AFP.