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Powerful earthquake kills at least 61 in Mexico

A massive 8.1-magnitude earthquake hit off Mexico’s southern coast, toppling houses in Chiapas state, causing at least three deaths and setting off a tsunami warning, officials said Friday.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake struck at 11:49 p.m. Thursday local time and its epicentre was 165 kilometres west of Tapachula in southern Chiapas state, not far from Guatemala. It had a depth of 35 kilometres.

The U.S. Tsunami Warning System says widespread hazardous tsunami waves are possible within the next several hours on the Pacific coasts of several Central American countries. It said waves were possible for Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras and Ecuador. There was no tsunami threat for the western coasts of Canada and the U.S.

Mexico’s civil protection agency said it was the strongest earthquake to hit the country since a devastating 1985 tremor that toppled buildings and killed thousands.

Chiapas Gov. Manuel Velasco said that three people were killed in San Cristobal, including two women who died iwhen a house and a wall collapsed. He called on people living near the coast to leave their houses as a protective measure.

“There are damages in hospitals that have lost energy,” he said. “Homes, schools and hospitals have been affected.”

Mexico earthquake 8

The large blue dot indicates where the earthquake of a magnitude of at least 8.1 struck late Thursday. The other dots represent a number of large earthquakes that quickly followed the initial event. (USGS)

Meanwhile, the civil defence force in Chiapas said on its Twitter account that its personnel were in the streets aiding people and warned residents to prepare for aftershocks.

In neighbouring Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales spoke on national television to call for calm while emergency crews checked for damage. Local radio in the Central American country reported one death, but it could not be confirmed.

“We have reports of some damage and the death of one person, even though we still don’t have exact details,” Morales said. He said the possible death occurred in San Marcos state near the border with Mexico.

‘Loud, thunderous cracks’

The quake was so powerful that frightened residents in the distant capital city of Mexico City, one of the world’s largest cities more than 1,000 kilometres from the epicentre, fled apartment buildings and gathered in groups in the street. Sections of the city were without electricity.

It’s a very flat fault, so it’s a place that has big earthquakes relatively often because of that.– Lucy Jones, USGS seismologist

People ran out into the streets in pyjamas and alarms sounded after the quake struck just before midnight, one witness told Reuters.

“They were scurrying through the hallways, leaving their buildings as quickly as possible in single file, going out into the middle of the street and trying to avoid high power cables because those are hanging all above us,” said freelance journalist Franc Contreras in a telephone interview with CBC News from Mexico City.

“In some parts of the city, people were reporting hearing loud, thunderous cracks coming from concrete buildings,” he added.

Small tsunami expected

Helicopters hovered overhead a few minutes later, apparently looking for damage to buildings in the city built on a spongy, drained lake bed. In one central neighbourhood, dozens of people stood outside after the quake, some wrapped in blankets against the cool night air. Children were crying.

“I had never been anywhere where the earth moved so much. At first I laughed, but when the lights went out I didn’t know what to do,” said Luis Carlos Briceno, an architect, 31, who was visiting Mexico City.

Mexico earthquake 8

While no deaths have been reported in Mexico, there are witness accounts suggesting extensive destruction in Chiapas. (Imelda Medina/Reuters)

“I nearly fell over.”

Lucy Jones, a seismologist in California who works with the U.S. Geological Survey, said such a quake was to be expected.

“Off the west coast of Mexico is what’s called the subduction zone, the Pacific Plate is moving under the Mexican peninsula,” she said.

“It’s a very flat fault, so it’s a place that has big earthquakes relatively often because of that.”

“There’s likely to be a small tsunami going to the southwest,” she said. “For tsunami generation, an 8 is relatively small.”

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