Rescuers rushed to aid scores of people feared trapped under rubble Tuesday after an earthquake hit Costa Rica and western Panama. Authorities said at least 74 people were killed, 830 injured and thousands left homeless.
Monday's quake, which registered 7.4 on the Richter scale, was felt throughout Costa Rica and parts of neighboring Panama.The worst damage was in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica's main Caribbean port city with 130,000 people, where the three-story International Hotel, the Customs House, an office building and dozens of houses collapsed.
Most of Puerto Limon's residents wandered in the streets all night, afraid to return home amid continuing aftershocks, officials said.
More than 300 aftershocks were felt, said Milton Chaverri of the National Emergency Commission.
"This place looks like one of these Hollywood apocalyptic movies. It felt like the world was coming to anend as everything moved and heaved," Rigoberto Perez, a resident of Puerto Limon, said by telephone.
At a government-owned refinery on the outskirts of the port, a gasoline tank exploded, sending up a huge fireball, and an electrical short-circuit set a factory ablaze, the fire department said.
When the quake hit, the sea receded 100 feet and residents of Puerto Limon fled for higher ground, fearing a tidal wave.
The capital, San Jose, 75 miles to the west, suffered extensive damage and throughout the countryside bridges were destroyed, roads blocked by landslides and power lines severed.
Earthquakes are frequent in Central America, but Costa Rica rarely has such serious tremors.
In Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the United States has provided a C-130 cargo plane and two helicopters to Costa Rica, and the U.S. Embassy in San Jose has provided $25,000 for immediate relief efforts.
In Panama, two helicopters from the U.S. military command there are assisting in the relief effort, Fitzwater said.
Costa Rican planes and helicopters began ferrying in medicines, electrical equipment, food, water and rescue equipment at daybreak Tuesday.
A 15-member British rescue team rushed from London to help find people trapped in the rubble.
Capt. Eduardo Sanchez of the Red Cross said by telephone from Puerto Limon that the death toll was rising hourly as reports came in.
"At this moment we have reports of about 50 dead and 500 hurt in the strip that runs from (Puerto) Limon to Sixaola, on the Panamanian frontier," he said, adding that about 400 homes and buildings were destroyed.
"As the sun came up, one could see the enormous magnitude of the damage in Limon. It is a desolate, sad scene," Maria Elena Argudes of the Red Cross said by phone.
The quake lasted about 15 seconds and was centered 70 miles southeast of San Jose. The first jolt struck at 3:58 p.m. MDT Monday.