PISCO, Peru - Peruvians have pulled hundreds of dead from the rubble of homes and churches as bodies pile up on street corners after a huge earthquake ravaged the country's central coast.
Firefighters, civil defence officials and the United Nations said around 450 were killed in yesterday's 8.0-magnitude quake. Some 2,000 people were injured and the death toll was expected to rise further.
As rescuers scrambled through the debris in search of survivors, dazed residents guarded bodies in the street, unsure where to take them. Many of the victims were poor and were trapped after their traditional adobe-brick homes collapsed.
In the hard-hit town of Pisco, south of the capital Lima, at least 50 bodies were laid out in the main square, where a church fell in on itself during a service.
"They had gone to the church for a mass to commemorate a dead loved one," said Enrique Gonzales, 48, sobbing as he searched for his wife and three sisters-in-law. "They never came back."
The US Geological Survey upgraded the quake's magnitude to 8.0 from an earlier 7.9 measurement, and powerful aftershocks rattled the country on Thursday.
Hospitals were overwhelmed with the injured and morgues with the dead, forcing Peruvians to place dead bodies pulled from crumbled mud-brick houses on city streets.
In the town of Chincha, wounded people lay on the floor in San Jose hospital, where walls were destroyed by the quake.
"We don't know what to do. I don't know where to hold a wake for her," Jose Flores, a boy about 12 years old, said as he stood near the body of his dead mother outside their destroyed home in the city 125 miles (200 km) south of Lima.
"The wall just came down and crushed her when I was outside," he said.
Hundreds of prisoners ran out of Chincha's Tambo de Mora prison after the earthquake ripped the old building apart.
"The authorities couldn't do anything. It was really hard to control all the prisoners," said Manuel Aguilar, vice president of Peru's prison authority. He said 29 prisoners stayed behind.
In the San Juan de Dios hospital in Pisco, doctor Ricardo Cabrera said staff was struggling to cope with 200 wounded, more than 40 dead and no power.
Many people were left homeless around Pisco and Chincha, where the huge tremor was felt the most, cracking highways and cutting power and telephone lines.
The Red Cross said it would send planes with tents, blankets and other aid from Panama.
With a major highway ruined, Peruvian rescuers airlifted victims by helicopter and airplane to hospitals in Lima. Officials appealed for blood donors to come forward so they could treat the injured.
President Alan Garcia visited rubble-strewn towns and sent condolences to the families of the quake's victims.
It was one of the worst natural disasters to hit Peru in the last century. In 1970, an earthquake killed an estimated 50,000 Peruvians in catastrophic avalanches of ice and mud that buried the town of Yungay.
The USGS said the quake on Wednesday was centred about 90 miles (145 km) southeast of Lima at a depth of around 25 miles (40 km) and was closely followed by nine aftershocks.
Peru is a leading minerals producer, but many of its major mines sit far away from the quake zone. The Cerro Lindo copper, zinc and lead mine near the zone suspended operations due to power cuts but its structures were not damaged.
In the central square of Lima, the Peruvian flag flew at half-mast as Garcia declared three days of national mourning.