At least 15 killed in Ecuador, Peru in wake of powerful earthquake

A 6.8-magnitude earthquake shook southern Ecuador and northern Peru on Saturday, killing at least 15 people and injuring at least 446 others, trapping many under rubble, and sending rescue teams into streets littered with debris and fallen power lines.

Architect says many collapsed homes were poorly built for quake-prone country

Police stand near earthquake rubble.
Police stand near buildings damaged after an earthquake struck Cuenca, Ecuador, on Saturday. (Xavier Caivinagua/The Associated Press)

A strong earthquake shook southern Ecuador and northern Peru on Saturday, killing at least 15 people, trapping others under rubble and sending rescue teams out into streets littered with debris and fallen power lines.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported an earthquake with a magnitude of about 6.8 that was centred just off the Pacific Coast, about 80 kilometres south of Guayaquil, Ecuador's second-largest city.

One of the victims died in Peru, while 14 others died in Ecuador, where authorities also reported that dozens of homes, schools and health-care centres were damaged. By Sunday, the number of people injured in Ecuador was reported to be at least 446. 

Juan Vera lost three relatives when the quake brought down his niece's home in Machala, Ecuador. The government has offered to pay for the woman's funeral and those of her baby and her partner, but Vera wonders why local authorities allowed his relatives to live in such an old home to begin with.

Police and firefighters walk past a crushed vehicle surrounded by bricks and block of concrete.
A police officer and rescue workers look up next to a car crushed by debris after an earthquake shook Cuenca, Ecuador, on Saturday. The U.S. Geological Survey reported an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.8, about 80 kilometres south of Guayaquil. (Xavier Caivinagua/The Associated Press)

"Because of its age, that building should have been demolished already," Vera said outside the morgue in Machala, where he was waiting for the three bodies to be released.

"I'm sorry, the mayor's office is the entity that has to regulate these things through its planning departments so that the buildings are in good condition to be rented out or inhabited."

The earthquake brought down homes and buildings in vastly different communities, from coastal areas to the highlands. But in Ecuador, regardless of geography, many of the homes that crumbled had a lot in common: They housed the poor, were old and did not meet building standards in the earthquake-prone country.

In Peru, the earthquake was felt from its northern border with Ecuador to the central Pacific coast. Peruvian Prime Minister Alberto Otarola said a four-year-old girl died from head trauma she suffered in the collapse of her home in the Tumbes region, on the border with Ecuador.

A building is seen partially inundated in water.
The Marine Museum of Puerto Bolivar, detached from the dock, is partially submerged in water after an earthquake shook Machala, Ecuador, on Saturday. (Jorge Sanchez/The Associated Press)

Peruvian authorities reported that four homes were destroyed and the old walls of an army barracks collapsed in Tumbes.

One of the victims in Azuay, Ecuador, was a passenger in a vehicle crushed by rubble from a house in the Andean community of Cuenca, according to the Risk Management Secretariat, Ecuador's emergency response agency.

In El Oro, the agency also reported that several people were trapped under rubble. In Machala, a two-storey home collapsed before people could evacuate, a pier gave way and a building's walls cracked, trapping an unknown number of people.

Old houses 'tend to collapse' during quakes

Quito-based architect German Narvaez said the houses most affected during earthquakes are those with deficient construction and that lack foundation, structure and technical design. He added that the houses are also old and built with materials such as adobe, which was once frequently used in Andean communities.

"At critical moments of seismic movements, they tend to collapse," he said.

The agency said firefighters worked to rescue people while Ecuador's National Police assessed damage, their work made more difficult by downed lines that interrupted telephone and electricity service.

Machala resident Fabricio Cruz said he was in his third-floor apartment when he felt a strong tremor and saw his television hit the ground. He immediately headed outside.

"I heard how my neighbours were shouting and there was a lot of noise," said Cruz, a 34-year-old photographer. He added that when he looked around, he noticed the collapsed roofs of nearby houses.

Police and firefighters in a crowd behind a small pile of bricks and concrete strewn across a road.
A damaged car and rubble from a house are shown in Cuenca, Ecuador, after an earthquake on Saturday. (Rafa Idrovo Espinoza/Reuters)

Guillermo Lasso, the country's president, said he would travel on Saturday to El Oro.

In Guayaquil, about 270 kilometres southwest of the capital, Quito, authorities reported cracks in buildings and homes, as well as some collapsed walls. Authorities ordered the closure of three vehicular tunnels in Guayaquil, which anchors a metro area of more than three million people.

'Never felt anything like this in my life'

Videos shared on social media show people gathered on the streets of Guayaquil and nearby communities. People reported objects falling inside their homes.

One video posted online showed three anchors of a TV show dart from their studio desk as the set shook. They initially tried to shake it off as a minor quake but soon fled off camera. One anchor indicated the show would go on a commercial break, while another repeated, "My God, my God."

Luis Tomala was fishing with others when the earthquake struck. He said their boat began moving "like a racehorse, we got scared, and when we turned on the radio, we heard about the earthquake." That's when his group decided to stay at sea, Tomala said, fearing a tsunami could develop.

Household belongings float in water near a damaged building.
Household items float in water after Saturday's earthquake in Machala. (Erick Feijoo/The Associated Press)

A report from Ecuador's Adverse Events Monitoring Directorate ruled out a tsunami threat.

Peruvian authorities said the old walls of an army barracks collapsed in Tumbes.

The earthquake was also felt in Peru, from its northern border with Ecuador to the central Pacific coast. No deaths or injuries were immediately reported. In the northern region of Tumbes, the old walls of an army barracks collapsed, authorities said.

People recover belongings from debris of a collapsed building.
Residents recover belongings from the debris of their collapsed home in Machala on Saturday. (Cesar Munoz/The Associated Press)

Ecuador is particularly prone to earthquakes. In 2016, a quake centred farther north on the Pacific Coast, in a more sparsely populated area of the country, killed more than 600 people.

Machala student Katherine Cruz said her home shook so badly that she could not even get up to leave her room and flee to the street.

"It was horrible. I had never felt anything like this in my life," she said.