At least 61 die in 8.5 magnitude Mexico quake, strongest in 85 years

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Soldiers remove the debris of a house destroyed in the 8.1 magnitude earthquake that struck off the southern coast of Mexico. (photo by Edgard Garrido, Reuters)

JUCHITAN, Mexico — (UPDATE – 12:07 p.m.) At least 61 people died when the most powerful earthquake to hit Mexico in over eight decades tore through buildings and forced mass evacuations in the poor southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, triggering alerts as far away as Southeast Asia.

The 8.1 magnitude quake off the southern coast late Thursday was stronger than a devastating 1985 temblor that flattened swathes of Mexico City and killed thousands.

The tremor rattled Mexico City and shook Guatemala and El Salvador, but the Oaxacan town of Juchitan bore the brunt of the disaster, with sections of the town hall, a hotel, a church, a bar and other buildings reduced to rubble.

Dalia Vasquez, a 55-year old cook, said she watched emergency workers haul the bodies of her elderly neighbor and her middle-aged son from their collapsed home.

Her own house was badly damaged. Frightened by the possibility of aftershocks, she planned to sleep with dozens more in the streets and parks. “We have nothing now. We don’t have any savings,” she said.

President Enrique Pena Nieto flew to the battered town to oversee rescue efforts. The town’s mayor, Gloria Sanchez, called it “the most terrible moment” in Juchitan’s history.

Facades of shattered buildings, fallen tiles and broken glass from shop fronts and banks littered the pavements of Juchitan while heavily armed soldiers patrolled and stood guard at areas cordoned off due to the extent of the damage.

Startled residents stepped through the rubble of about 100 wrecked buildings, including houses, a flattened Volkswagen dealership and Juchitan’s shattered town hall. Scores paced the terrain or sat outside warily, mindful of the frequent aftershocks and reliving the night’s terror.

“It was brutal, brutal. It was like a monster, like a train was passing over our roofs,” said Jesus Mendoza, 53, as he milled about in a park across from the damaged town hall.

Alma Rosa, sitting in vigil with a relative by the body of a loved one draped in a red shroud, said: “We went to buy a coffin, but there aren’t any because there are so many bodies.”

All the deaths were in three neighboring states clustered near the epicenter that lay about 70 km (40 miles) off the coast.

At least 45 people died in Oaxaca, many of them in Juchitan, while in Chiapas the count reached 12 and in Tabasco four people lost their lives, according to federal and state officials.

In Chiapas, home to many of Mexico’s indigenous ethnic groups, thousands of people in coastal areas were evacuated as a precaution when the quake sparked tsunami warnings, but only two-foot waves were produced by the quake.

WATCH VIDEO OBTAINED BY REUTERS OF THE MOMENT THE QUAKE STRUCK:

Waves rose as high as 2.3 feet in Mexico, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said, though that threat passed.

State oil company Pemex said it was checking its installations for damage and closed the Salina Cruz refinery in the same region as the epicenter as a precautionary measure. It began to restart the 330,000 bpd refinery on Friday afternoon.

Woken in the night

At least 250 people in Oaxaca were also injured, according to agriculture minister Jose Calzada.

Classes were suspended in much of central and southern Mexico on Friday to allow authorities to assess damage.

People ran into the streets in Mexico City, one of the world’s largest cities with an estimated population of more than 20 million, and alarms sounded after the quake struck just before midnight.

In one central neighborhood, dozens stood outside, some wrapped in blankets against the cool night air. Children were crying.

Liliana Villa, 35, who was in her apartment when the quake struck, fled in her nightclothes.

“It felt horrible, and I thought, ‘this (building) is going to fall,’” she said.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake’s epicenter was in the Pacific, 54 miles (87 km) southwest of the town of Pijijiapan at a depth of 43 miles (69 km).

John Bellini, a geophysicist at the USGS National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado, said Thursday’s quake was the strongest in Mexico since an 8.1 temblor struck the western state of Jalisco in 1932.

Across the Pacific, the national disaster agency of the Philippines put the country’s eastern seaboard on alert for possible tsunamis, although no evacuations were ordered.

Outages, aftershocks

Rescue workers searched through the night for anyone trapped in collapsed buildings but by early Friday the toll appeared to be less severe than that seen in many far less powerful tremors.

Windows were shattered at Mexico City airport and power went out in several neighborhoods of the capital, affecting more than one million people. The cornice of a hotel came down in the southern tourist city of Oaxaca, a witness said.

Helicopters buzzed overhead looking for damage to the city, which is built on a spongy, drained lake bed that amplifies earthquakes along the volcanic country’s multiple seismic fault-lines, even when they occur hundreds of miles away.

The 1985 earthquake was by the coast, about 200 miles from Mexico City. Thursday’s quake was 470 miles from the city.

Authorities reported dozens of aftershocks, and President Pena Nieto said the quake was felt by around 50 million of Mexico’s roughly 120 million population, with further aftershocks likely. He advised people to check their homes and offices for damage and gas leaks.

Mexico is evaluating whether the quake will trigger a payout from a World Bank-backed catastrophe bond, Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade said on Friday. Meade said the bond’s coverage could reach $150 million, depending on magnitude and location.

But he said Mexico has sufficient funds to pay for a clean-up whether the bond was triggered or not.