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Hundreds killed in Ecuador’s strongest earthquake in decades

The strongest earthquake to hit Ecuador in nearly 40 years killed at least 235 people on Saturday.

The 7.8-magnitude quake ripped through the country’s northern coastal communities along the Pacific Ocean, also sending shock waves to the inland capital of Quito and knocking out power, and leaving behind scenes of chaos around the nation of 16 million residents. At least 1,500 people were injured.

With the death poll expected to climb, rescuers began the arduous task of digging through the rubble of collapsed buildings to find survivors. Government officials reported that an unknown number of people remain missing while states of emergency were initiated in six provinces.

“There are people trapped in various places and we are starting rescue operations,” Vice President Jorge Glas told Reuters.

Ecuador’s largest city of  Guayaquil was also struck by the quake, whose epicenter was located farther north off the country’s west coast near the town of Pedernales. Officials said there were 135 aftershocks there and many of the town’s residents flocked out of their homes to the streets, according the Associated Press.

Many of the deaths were reported in Manta, Portoviejo and Guayaquil. Witnesses described collapsed bridges and highways and seeing remnants of toppled buildings reduced to piles of twisted metal, brick and detritus.

“It was terrifying, we were all scared and we’re still out in the streets because we’re worried about aftershocks,” Guayaquil security guard Fernando Garcia told the Reuters.

Much of the population living in the affected area lives in structures made of “brick masonry and mud wall construction” that are “vulnerable to earthquake shaking,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

President Rafael Correa, who was returning from Italy, said on Twitter said that government is focusing on rescue efforts. He also encouraged residents to remain calm.

Officials said Sunday’s earthquake was the worst in Equador since 1979, when 600 people died and 20,000 were injured.

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