I was in a popular bar area in the capital city of Santiago when the huge 8.8-magnitude earthquake hit. Patrons rushed out of restaurants and clubs in panic. Unlike the quakes I experienced as a child in Los Angeles, where the geological events made a grumbling sound like you'd expect to hear in a Hollywood retelling, the temblor in Chile was completely silent. The earth seemed simply to slide back and forth. It felt as if it lasted a long time.
The city was plunged into darkness, but there was a general sense of calm. Within minutes, the traffic signals began to function again and traffic flowed normally. Several people, upon seeing me a clueless-looking tourist puzzling over a map, stopped to offer their assistance. One young man simply stopped, put his hand on my shoulder and smiled as he said, in heavily accented English, "Welcome to Chile."
The quake struck at 3:34 a.m. and was centered 197 miles (317 kilometers) southwest of the capital, Santiago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That's just 75 miles from Concepcion, which, with some 200,000 people, is the country's second largest city. Crucially, the quake hit at a depth of 36.9 miles (59.4 kilometers) below the surface. Deep quakes tend not to do as much damage as ones that hit very close to the surface, like that in Haiti last month.
As Hawaii and Japan braced for a possible tsunami, Michelle Bachelet, the outgoing president of Chile, urged her people to remain calm. "We're doing everything we can with all the forces we have," she said. Ministers have said that at least 78 people are dead with Interior Minister Edmundo Perez Yoma saying 34 of the deaths were in Maule, 13 in the Santiago municipality and four in Valparaiso. The worst affected areas appear to be closest to the epicenter, southwest of Santiago near Concepcion, Valdivia and Temuco.
Chile sits on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean's "rim of fire" and astride a massive fault line. In May, 1960, the largest earthquake recorded in the 20th century hit off the coast of central Chile. The quake, which had a magnitude of 9.5, killed 1,655 people and left 2 million homeless. It also triggered a tsunami that reached Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines, killing dozens in each place and destroying buildings and infrastructure.
The extent of the damage from this latest quake is still unclear. "The lurching was incredibly strong," said Laura Lopez, Secretary of the Commission for the UN's Santiago-based Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, who was reached by phone in Santiago. The former TIME Latin America bureau chief said the temblor hit as she and her husband and son were sleeping in their home in the Lo Barnechea district of northeast Santiago. "I've lived in earthquake zones my entire life I've lived through California earthquakes, I was in Mexico City in 1985 but this was the worst jolt I've ever experienced," she said. "I've never lost my equilibrium that badly." (Her house, however, was not damaged, and her family was able to get outside with no problem.)
Lopez noted that the shock was remarkably quiet and also short until another hit about 45 minutes afterward. But because the buildings in Chile are built so well, she points out, the damage in the capital is minimal given the magnitude. "Some overturned lampposts, some chandeliers down in hotel lobbies, but otherwise very little wreckage," she said. The country's efficient earthquake response system went into full effect as well, with water and gas and other potentially hazardous infrastructure shut off and police patrolling the streets immediately.
An advance team preparing for a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Santiago to prepare for her visit to attend the inauguration of President-elect Sebastián Piñera. There was some damage to the hotel the U.S. team was in but no reports of anyone inside being hurt by the quake.
A church collapsed in Santiago, and some of the debris hit a cab that was taking a Mexican investment banker back to his hotel. He emerged from the car with only a small scratch on his face.With reporting by Tim Padgett/Miami