MEXICO CITY • A powerful magnitude 8.1 earthquake that rocked Mexico late on Thursday has killed at least 32 people and shaken buildings in the capital, in what the President called the quake-prone country's biggest in a century.
The epicentre of the quake was in the Pacific Ocean, 87km south- west of the town of Pijijiapan in the poor southern state of Chiapas, and 70km deep. It was felt in the capital, Mexico City, nearly 725km away.
"It was a major earthquake in scale and magnitude, the strongest in the past 100 years," President Enrique Pena Nieto said at the National Disaster Prevention Centre's headquarters, where he was supervising the emergency response.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) put the magnitude at 8.1, stronger than a devastating 1985 earthquake that killed more than 10,000 people in Mexico City - the country's most destructive ever.
The worst destruction appeared to be in Juchitan, in the state of Oaxaca, where at least 23 people were killed, said Oaxaca Governor Alejandro Murat. He said 17 of the fatalities were in Juchitan, on Mexico's Tehuantepec isthmus.
Officials said the death toll could rise. "There are houses that collapsed with people inside," said the emergency response agency's director-general Luis Felipe Puente.
In Juchitan, a hotel collapsed, the town hall partly caved in and many houses were badly damaged. The ceiling of a shopping mall in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the Chiapas state capital, collapsed. Mr Pena Nieto said three people were killed in collapsing buildings in Chiapas.
In neighbouring Tabasco state, two children were killed, the governor said. One was crushed by a collapsing wall. The other, an infant on a respirator, died after the quake triggered a power outage.
Rescuers laboured overnight in badly hit areas to search for people trapped under collapsed buildings.
Mr Pena Nieto said 50 million of Mexico's 120 million people felt the quake. It was also felt in much of Guatemala, which borders Chiapas.
Schools were ordered shut in 11 states yesterday so checks for structural damage could be carried out.
In Mexico City, people ran out of buildings - many in pyjamas - after hearing earthquake warning sirens go off just before midnight. On the streets, they looked up nervously at shaking trees and swaying power lines. Helicopters buzzed overhead, apparently looking for damage to buildings in the city, which is built on a spongy, drained lake bed.
"I was driving when the ground started to shake. The car was wobbling," said Uber driver Cristian Rodriguez, 28.
Resident Mayaro Ortega, 31, who fled her building, said: "We heard an explosion. Apparently it was a transformer. The streetlights started swinging back and forth."
In one neighbourhood, dozens stood outside after the quake, some wrapped in blankets. Windows also shattered at Mexico City's airport and power was cut in several neighbourhoods of the capital, affecting more than one million people.
Initially, the authorities issued a tsunami alert for a huge stretch of coastline spanning Central America to Ecuador. But the alert was lifted several hours after the quake.
EARTHQUAKE FELT IN MEXICO CITY
I was driving when the ground started to shake. The car was wobbling.
UBER DRIVER CRISTIAN RODRIGUEZ, 28.
We heard an explosion... The streetlights started swinging back and forth.
RESIDENT MAYARO ORTEGA, 31.
USGS reported multiple aftershocks, ranging in magnitude from 4.3 to 5.7. The President said more were likely, adding: "We are alert."
Since the 1985 quake, the Mexican authorities have put in place a stricter building code and an alert system using sensors on the coasts.
"The scariest part of it all is that if you are an adult and you have lived in this city your adult life, you remember 1985 very vividly. This felt as strong and as bad, but from what I see, we have been spared major tragedy," said bar manager Alberto Briseno, 58, in Condesa.
"Now, we will do what us Mexicans do so well: Take the bitter taste of this night and move on."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES