It lasted just 120 seconds. Among the strongest earthquakes ever recorded. Geologists call them “megaquakes” – when the planet’s tectonic plates collide.
At a magnitude measuring 8.8 – emanating from 35 kilometres below ground – the quake has affected 80 per cent of Chilean territory including the Juan Fernandez archipeligo 800 kilometres west of the mainland.
Here a series of waves, some of them between 40 and 60 metres high, swept away everything in their path.
On Robinson Crusoe island a Franco-Chilean team of archeologists managed to escape only after local fishermen raised the alarm shortly before the tsunami struck.
Waves triggered by the earthquake wrought havoc on the Chilean coast. One village located just 40 kilometres from Concepción was said by the authorities to no longer exist once the waters subsided.
Concepcion, Chile’s second city with half a million inhabitants, is one of the worst hit areas. Residents believe precious time -which could have saved lives – was lost as the risk of tsunami was underestimated in the immediate aftermath of the quake.
Colonel Jorge Concha of the Chilean army said: “There is believed to be many people missing who could be under the rubble, and also in this area where we are now, as a result of the wave that hit this area about 25 minutes after the earthquake, according to my soldiers.”
Many people have lost their homes and family members who remain on the official missing list.
One resident said: A wave of at least eight to 10 metres arrived it’s razed many houses along the coast including my own, my mother’s and my aunt’s.”
Out of a population of 17 million, two million Chileans have been affected in some way by the earthquake – that’s one in eight. The full extent of the damage has yet to be revealed. So far there have been 90 aftershocks of magnitude five or over.
Emergency officials say the number of dead is certain to rise as bodies continue to be found.