Kiwis face wait for news of loved ones

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A massive earthquake in Chile yesterday has left more than 300 dead and many New Zealanders worrying about friends and family.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFAT) said 200 New Zealanders were known to be in Chile, 80 of which were confirmed to be safe by late this afternoon.

However, communications were difficult in Chile, making it difficult to track everyone down.

No New Zealanders are believed to have died.

One couple from Auckland, Rose and Sean Hallissey, were in Santiago, about 500km north of Concepcion, Chile's second largest city which was close to the epicentre of the quake, when the 8.8 magnitude quake struck.

Mr Hallissey, 43, this morning called his mother in Christchurch. He said he was safe, but had "never been so scared in all his life" and the aftershocks had left him nauseous.

"He is beside himself," Shealagh Hallissey, who had spent an anxious night trying to reach her son, told the Press.

"He said the skyline in Santiago is just smoke and it's pretty devastated."

Mr Hallissey said he had left his apartment for a modern hotel with "seismic strengthening".

The couple, who arrived in Chile two months ago for business, had been due to leave tomorrow, but the airport had been closed for at least three days.

A Qantas flight from Auckland to Chile this afternoon was cancelled because of earthquake damage.

Well-known Wellington sports promoter Jorge Sandoval, who arrived in New Zealand in 1976 as a political refugee from Chile, was devastated by the quake.

His parents and other relatives lived in Tome, a fishing village near Concepcion,

"It has been impossible to get through to find out anything as all communication has been cut," Sandoval told NZPA.

"All I know is what I have seen on CNN. I never imagined in my life that I would see my village in the news like this.

"If only I could speak to any of my family in Tome, I would not feel so bad," added Sandoval who had not slept since he heard of the disaster.

Christchurch man Sean Gosling suffered an agonising wait as he struggled to get news of his wife and daughter who were in Concepcion at the time of the quake.

Communication difficulties in Chile hampered him as he frantically rang friends, embassies to track them down.

"It was one of the worst experiences I've ever had," Mr Gosling told stuff.co.nz.

"Obviously you always think of the worst. I had to try and get my head around trying not to think of the worst - trying to think of anyone that I could call to help out."

He had not spoken to them himself but heard through relatives they were safe, which was a huge relief, Mr Gosling said.

"At least I know they're safe but I still want to hear their voices."

His wife Evelyn Fabiana Matamala Rojas and daughter Paloma Sefia Gosling, 4, had been visiting Evelyn's family for three weeks and were due to return to New Zealand on March 11, he said.

Neither the Chilean Embassy in Wellington nor the consulate in Auckland could be contacted this afternoon.

The quake struck Chile last night, with 78 confirmed dead and fears there may be hundreds more.

Chilean President Michele Bachelet declared a "state of catastrophe" in central Chile.

Tsunami warnings were issued over a wide area, including South America, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines, Russia and many Pacific islands.

"We have had a huge earthquake, with some aftershocks," Bachelet said, appealing from an emergency response centre for Chileans to remain calm. "Despite this, the system is functioning. People should remain calm. We're doing everything we can with all the forces we have.

"Any information we will share immediately."

Bachelet said early reports were that 78 people had been killed, and "without a doubt, with an earthquake of this magnitude, there will be more deaths." She urged people to avoid travelling in the dark, since traffic lights were down, to avoid causing more fatalities.

The quake hit 325km southwest of the capital, Santiago, at a depth of 35km at 7.34pm (NZ time).

The epicentre was just 115km from Concepcion, Chile's second-largest city, where more than 200,000 people live.

In Santiago, modern buildings are built to withstand the frequent earthquakes that plague the region, but many older ones were heavily damaged, including the Nuestra Senora de la Providencia church, whose bell tower collapsed. An apartment building's two-level parking lot also flattened onto the ground floor, smashing about 50 cars whose alarms and horns rang incessantly.

A bridge just outside the capital also collapsed, and at least one car flipped upside down.

In the coastal city of Vina del Mar, the earthquake struck just as people were leaving a disco, Julio Alvarez told Radio Cooperativa in Santiago.

"It was very bad, people were screaming, some people were running, others appeared paralysed. I was one of them."

Eyewitnesses spoke of panicking crowds pouring onto the streets of the city, hugging each other and crying. Telephone and power lines were down, making a quick assessment of the damage difficult in the early morning darkness. The death toll figure was broadcast by Chilean radio, citing reporters on the ground.

The damage became clearer as the sun rose.

Bachelet said she was declaring a "state of catastrophe" in three central regions of the country, and that while emergency responders were waiting for first light to get details, it was evident that damage was extensive.

Several hospitals had been evacuated due to earthquake damage, she said, and communications with the city of Concepcion remained down. She planned to tour the affected region as soon as possible to get a better idea of the damage.

The quake also sparked tsunami fears across the Pacific, with Hawaii on tsunami alert late last night.

A huge wave reached a populated area in the Robinson Crusoe Islands, 660km off the Chilean coast, Bachelet said, but there were no immediate reports of major damage there.

The tsunami warning centre said sea level readings indicate a tsunami was generated.

"It may have been destructive along coasts near the earthquake epicentre and could also be a threat to more distant coasts," the centre said. It did not expect a tsunami along the west of the US or Canada but was continuing to monitor the situation.

The largest earthquake ever recorded struck the same area of Chile on May 22, 1960.

The magnitude-9.5 quake killed 1655 people and left two million homeless.

The resulting tsunami killed people in Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines and caused damage to the west coast of the United States.

Yesterday's quake followed an earlier one in Japan, whose southern islands were hit by a powerful earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.9 rattled Japan's southern islands. Two people were injured in the earthquake, which also sparked a tsunami warning.

There were no reports of serious damage from the quake, believed to be the strongest in a century to hit Japan's southern Okinawa Island.

The earthquake that devastated Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince on January 12 was rated at magnitude 7.0, while the one that struck Indonesia on Boxing Day 2004 measured magnitude 9.2.

MFAT advise that family and friends who have concerns about New Zealanders and cannot contact them should phone 0800 432 111, or +64 4 439 8401.

The ministry is also advising people who plan to visit Chile to contact their travel agent before leaving New Zealand.

- NZ HERALD STAFF, AAP, NZPA

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