Ecuador earthquake: Death toll jumps to 246; more than 2,500 injured

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(CNN) — Rescue crews searched desperately through rubble Sunday for survivors of a magnitude-7.8 earthquake that struck coastal Ecuador.

The death toll has soared to 246, Ecuador’s Vice President Jorge Glas said Sunday evening on Ecuador TV. At least 2,527 people were injured, he said.

The hardest-hit area was the coastal Manabi Province, where about 200 people died, said Ricardo Peñaherrera of Ecuador’s national emergency management office. The cities of Manta, Puerto Viejo and Pedernales, a tourist destination, saw the most devastation but damage was widespread throughout the country.

“It was the worst experience of my life,” survivor Jose Meregildo said Sunday about the tremors that violently shook his house in Guayaquil, 300 miles away from the quake’s epicenter. “Everybody in my neighborhood was screaming saying it was going to be the end of the world.”

The earthquake hit Saturday night, buckling overpasses, causing houses to collapse and knocking out power in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s most populous city, authorities said. People left their homes and wandered around, some sleeping in the streets.

People looking for family and friends frantically dug with their hands and tools until excavation equipment arrived. Emergency officials recovered one body from the scene of a bridge collapse there.

Video showed rescuers looking for a young girl underneath the rubble of the Hotel Miami in the province of Manabi, finally pulling her out and taking her away on a stretcher.

Armed forces, police deployed

In a race to help residents, Ecuador deployed 10,000 soldiers and 4,600 police officers to the affected areas. The armed forces built mobile hospitals in Pedernales and Portoviejo and set up temporary shelters.

The military also brought in more K9 units to aid the search for survivors — and bodies.

“The lack of water and communication remains a big problem,” Peñaherrera told CNN en Español. “Many highways are in bad shape, especially in the mountainous area because it has been raining recently due to (the) El Niño weather phenomenon.”

The governments of Colombia, Chile, Spain and Mexico are sending help for rescue efforts, Glas said.

A state of emergency is in effect for six provinces — Guayas, Manabi, Santo Domingo, Los Rios, Esmeraldas and Galapagos. Authorities urged those who left their homes in coastal areas to return after a tsunami alert was lifted.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa rushed back to Ecuador and was expected to arrive Sunday after attending a Vatican conference in Rome, the vice president said in a televised address.

During his Sunday prayer, Pope Francis asked for those present to pray for the people affected by the earthquakes in Ecuador and Japan.

“Last night a violent earthquake hit Ecuador, causing numerous victims and great damages,” Francis said. “Let’s pray for those populations, and for those of Japan, where as well there has been some earthquakes in the last days.”

Nightlife venues closed

Ecuador’s Interior Ministry ordered all nightlife venues in affected areas closed for the next 72 hours.

Also, the nation’s soccer federation said it has suspended the remaining matches of the current round of the Ecuadorian championship.

All mobile operators are allowing free text messages for customers to reach out to loved ones in Manabi and Esmeraldas provinces, Glas said.

The tremor was centered 27 kilometers (16.8 miles) southeast of the coastal town of Muisne, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

It’s the deadliest earthquake to hit the nation since March 1987 when a 7.2-magnitude temblor killed 1,000 people, according to the USGS.

The earthquake left shoppers shaken in Guayaquil. Video footage from a store showed kitchen utensils swinging back and forth as some items tumbled off shelves.

There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries in the capital of Quito, 173 kilometers (108 miles) from the quake epicenter.

The PacificTsunami Warning Center said the tsunami threat following the earthquake has “mostly passed.”

An earlier warning for other nations with coastlines on the Pacific was canceled.

Japan quakes

The deadly earthquake in Ecuador follows two deadly temblors in Japan last week.

Forty-one people were killed when a magnitude-6.2 earthquake jolted the Kyushu region Thursday, followed by a magnitude-7.0 in the same area Saturday, authorities said.

CNN’s Rafael Romo, Steve Almasy, Tina Burnside, Ralph Ellis, Dakota Flournoy and Nelson Quinones contributed to this report.