At least one American was among the 350 people corroborated dead from Ecuador’s strongest earthquake in decades, the State Department reported Monday, as crews raced to save anybody who still might be alive and trapped underneath the rubble.
U.S. officials did not name the American who died.
The 7.8 -magnitude quake left a trail of wrecking along the normally calm Pacific coast, buckling highways, knocking down an air traffic control tower and flattening homes and buildings. Thousands of people are homeless.
“For God’s sake help me find their own families, ” pleaded Manuel Quijije, 27, standing next to a wrecked building in hard-hit Portoviejo. He said his older brother, Junior, was trapped under a piling of distorted steel and concrete with two relatives.
“We managed to see his arms and legs. They’re his, they’re buried, but the police kicked us out because they say there’s a risk the rest of the building will collapse, ” Quijije told angrily as he seemed on the ruinings cordoned off by police. “We’re not afraid. We’re desperate. We want to pull out our family.”
A grief-stricken aunt, Johana Estupinan, said her family was getting together to celebrate 17 -year-old Sayira Quinde running off to college when a house breakdown killed the teen, her mother, father and toddler brother. Now, Estupinan is traveling in a hearse to the town of Esmeraldas, where she will bury her loved ones and break the news of the loss to her sister’s three now-orphaned children.
Also among the dead was Sister Clare Theresa Crockett, a 33 -year-old Irish nun who worked at local schools in in rural Playa Prieta, Sky News reported.
It is believed that Crockett was trying to help girls out of the school after the quake hit. Her body was found in the rubble of a collapsed staircase.
“She was the last sister find, ” her cousin Emmet Doyle told Sky News. “She was trying to get them down the stairs and the staircase collapsed. She died as she lived, helping others.”
President Rafael Correa told early Monday that the death toll would “surely rise, and in a significant way.”
“The Ecuadorean spirit knows how to move forward, and will know how to overcome these so difficult moments, ” Correa said.
Ecuadorian Security Minister Cesar Navas told the Teleamazonas TV channel Monday morning that the death toll had risen to 350 from 272.
Portoviejo, a provincial capital of nearly 300,000, was among the hardest hit, with the town’s mayor reporting at least 100 demises. The Quinde family drove there from their home hours up the coast to drop off Sayira at Estupinan’s house a week before she was to start classes at a public university on a scholarship to study medicine.
“She was my favorite niece, ” Estupinan told, emotionally torn apart after waiting at the city’s morgue for hours. “I believed I was getting a daughter for the six years it was going to take her to earn a degree.”
“I never believed my life would be destroyed in a minute, ” she added.
Estupinan watched as her loved ones were loaded onto a truck-sized hearse for the nighttime drive, the three older ones in dark mahogany coffins and 8-month-old Matias in a casket painted white. “It was supposed to be a short moment of household happiness but it converted into a tragedy, ” she said.
She hoped to bury her relatives in Esmeraldas on Monday, but devastation there is also severe and she worried about whether the hearse could make it along roads ripped apart by the quake.
The Saturday night quake knocked out power in many components along the coast and some who fled to higher ground fearing a tsunami had no home to return to, or feared structures still standing might collapse. The country’s Geophysics Institute said it recorded 230 aftershocks, some strong, as of Sunday night.
With makeshift shelters in short supply, many hunkered down to spend a second straight night outdoors huddled among neighbors.
Correa cut short a trip to the Vatican and flew immediately to the city of Manta to oversee relief efforts. Even before touching Ecuadorean clay he signed a decree declaring a national emergency. Speaking from Portoviejo late Sunday he said the earthquake was the worst natural disaster to make Ecuador since a 1949 earthquake in the Andean city of Ambato, which took over 5,000 lives.
“Our grief is very large, the tragedy is very large, but we’ll find the way to move forward, ” Correa told. “If our ache is immense, still larger is the spirit of our people.”
As rescuers scrambled through the ruinings near the epicenter, in some cases digging with their hands to look for survivors, humanitarian aid began trickling in. More than 3,000 packages of food and nearly 8,000 sleeping kits were being delivered Sunday. Correa’s ally, Venezuela, and neighboring Colombia, where the quake was also felt, coordinated airlifts. Mexico and Chile sent squads of rescuers.
Spain’s Red Cross told as many as 5,000 people may need temporary housing after the quake flattened homes, and 100,000 may need some sort of aid.
On social media, Ecuadoreans celebrated a video of a newborn girl being pulled from beneath a collapsed home in Manta.
But fear was also spreading of another night of looting after 180 captives from a incarcerate near Portoviejo escaped amid the uproar. Authorities said some 20 inmates were recaptured and some others returned voluntarily.
Seeking security from any unrest, about 400 residents of Portoviejo gathered Sunday night on the tarmac of the city’s former airport, where authorities handed out water, mattresses and food. The airport was closed in 2011 and flights diverted to a larger facility in nearby Manta after Correa kicked out a U.S. narcotic interdiction operation stationed there.
Shantytowns and inexpensively constructed brick and concrete homes were to curtail rubble along the quake’s path. In the coastal township of Chamanga, authorities estimated than 90 percentage of homes had damage, while in Guayaquil a shopping center’s roof has declined in and a collapsed highway overpass crushed a automobile, killing the driver.
The government said it would draw on $600 million in emergency funding from multilateral banks to rebuild.
But in the meantime, the digging and hoping against the odds continued.
In downtown Portoviejo, a few blocks from where a four-story hotel fell onto the Quinde family’s automobile, the six-story social security systems house was a piling of rubble. Downed power cables were strewn across the street.
“The situation is heart-rending, ” Jaime Ugalde, editor of El Diario, the city’s most-important newspaper, told as he surveyed the damage. “I’m going to return home and hug my spouse and two children. We’re the luck ones. We’re alive.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report .
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