MEXICO CITY -- A major earthquake 40 miles off Mexico's Pacific coast rocked the nation today, crumbling churches, hotels and office buildings as far as 250 miles away in Mexico City. Reports from the scene said there was a heavy loss of life.
Channel 13, the only Mexico City station able to stay on the air, said there were 20 confirmed deaths and estimated the death toll could go as high as 300.
Hundreds of buildings were damaged and the streets were ablaze with natural gas from broken pipelines.Hospitals were filled with injured.
Twenty-five people were killed during mass when a church collapsed in Ciudad Guzman, 420 miles west of Mexico City and some 50 miles inland, El Informador newspaper in Guadalajara said.
The quake, which was felt as far as Corpus Christi and Houston on the eastern coast of Texas, had a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale and hit at 9:18 a.m. EDT, said John Minsch, a geophysicist at the National Earthquake Center in Golden, Colo.
Its epicenter was in an earthquake-prone area about 40 miles offshore and 150 miles northwest of the resort of Acapulco. The National Weather Service issued a tidal wave watch for Mexico, El Salvador, Ecuador and California but called it off some four hours after the temblor.
Much of the quake area is sparsely populated but the quake hit at rush hour for Mexico City's 18 million people and heavily damaged the downtown section. Channel 13 said several major hotels, including Monte Carlo, Ejecutivo, Palace and Reforma, were damaged and President Miguel de la Madrid declared a state of emergency for the Mexico City area.
Some 2,000 people were trapped in a building housing another television station.
Reports were slow in coming because communications and utilities were knocked out but ham radio operators who set up emergency networks to relay messages described fatalities and destroyed buildings.
Carlos Emilio Sartorius, operating a ham radio by battery from southern Mexico City, said he was taking a bath when quake hit and he went outside on the street.
'I only felt one earthquake but it was terribly long,' he said. 'It was terrible. I've never felt one like this before.
'I saw a lot dead and trapped.'
He said he saw heavy damage in Colonia Roma, an old section of the city.
'There was a radio station, an FM radio station about seven or eight stories. It collapsed completely like a sandwich. On my way back home, I saw several buildings collapsed, maybe one in each block.
'It's really scary. It's terrifying. There is one important area of the city, a luxury area, where buildings are collapsed.'
Sartorius said he saw six buildings collapsed in a seven-block area and a hospital was heavily damaged. Military helicopters were flying in, he said.
'The nurses and the doctors were taking all the people out of the hospital to the street because all the windows were broken and the building was in bad shape,' he said. 'It's a very old area in Mexico City. There are old buildings and a lot of people live there.'
The U.S. State Department said its embassy reported 'physical damage' to the city. State Department spokesman Barnard Kalb said the U.S. Embassy said there was 'significant damage in the old section of the city,' including collapsed buildings. Damage was reported in the Zona Rosa, an area popular with tourists.
Radio reports reaching the state of Guadalajara, north of the epicenter, said the Hotel Roma and television towers in Mexico City were among the damaged structure.
Aeromexico, one of Mexico's two national airlines, said airports are closed and all communciations are down in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Tepic, Nayarit, the resort of Ixtapa, and Acapulco until further notice.
Juarez television Channel 44 reported a seven-story building was destroyed. Their own transmitter, the Televisa building, also was damaged. Channel 44 said severe damage was inflicted on a Social Security Hospital.
Police in Mexico City reported a large number of gas leaks and are advising all residents of the city to remain calm and exercise extreme caution.
MikeRiley, an amateur radio operator at the American Radio Relay League in Newington, Conn., monitored a ham in Mexico City who reported: 'There have been buildings destroyed. Telephone service is either destroyed or disrupted. Out of all the television stations in mexico City, there's only one left on the air.'
Airman Annette Dalluge, a radio operator assigned to Military Affiliate Radio System, known as MARS, a radio service for ham and military operators at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, talked by radio to the U.S. Embassy, which reported 100 'casualties' downtown. The embassy did not specify what sort of casualties, Dalluge said.
Ensique Hubbard, the Mexican consul in Brownsville, Texas, said at noon CDT apparently the main antenna for the national television network collapsed in Mexico City, and the quake also interrupted telephone service. He said he had reports another television network was barely operable and was being monitored in some parts of Mexico, but he has been unable to get a call through to anyone watching that channel.
'The only communication appears to be by telegraph and it's very slow,' he said.
It was the strongest quake in the world since another 7.8 magitude earthquake near the coast of central Chile on March 3 killed at least 177 people, injured 2,500 others and caused extensive damage.
C.W. Dawson, property manager for Texas Commerce Tower, the tallest building in Houston at 75 stories, said, 'We experienced movement shortly after the earthquake that took place in Mexico. We're fairly certain that is the reason because we weren't the only building that felt it.'
Geophysicist Waverly Person said the center had received one call from Mexico City and that the caller 'felt the earthquake very strongly and that was it.' 'You could have considerable damage,' he said. 'It just depends on what kind of structures they have and that kind of thing. All I can say is that it is a major earthquake and it really could cause damage.'
John Filson, chief of the U.S. Geological Service earthquake studies office in Reston, Va., said the quake was centered near the northern end of a topographic feature called the Middle America Trench, off the west coast of Mexico and Central America.
He said the area's frequent earthquakes are caused by the earth's crust on the Pacific side pushing under the continent.
He said earthquakes the size of Thursday's are not uncommon in the area and are often felt strongly in Mexico City.