MEXICO CITY (AP) – A massive 8.1-magnitude earthquake hit off the coast of southern Mexico, toppling houses in Chiapas state, causing buildings to sway violently as far away as the country’s distant capital and setting off a tsunami warning.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake struck at 11:49 p.m. Thursday local time and its epicenter was 165 kilometers (102 miles) west of Tapachula in Chiapas state not far from Guatemala. It had a depth of 35 kilometers (22 miles).
The U.S. Tsunami Warning System said hazardous tsunami waves were possible on the Pacific coasts of several Central American countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and Honduras, within three hours. There was no tsunami threat for the U.S. West Coast, but the warning system said waves could reach Mexico and as far as Ecuador.
“The house moved like chewing gum and the light and internet went out momentarily,” said Rodrigo Soberanes, who lives near San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, a poor, largely indigenous state popular with tourists.
Chiapas Gov. Manuel Velasco told television station Televisa the rooves of homes and a shopping center had collapsed in San Cristobal.
“There are damages in hospitals that have lost energy,” he said. “Homes, schools and hospitals have been affected.”
Civil Defense in Chiapas said on its Twitter account that its personnel were in the streets aiding people and warned residents to prepare for aftershocks.
The quake was so powerful that frightened residents in Mexico City more than 1,000 kilometers (650 miles) away fled apartment buildings, often in their pajamas, and gathered in groups in the street.
Buildings swayed strongly for more than one minute, loosening light fixtures from ceilings. Helicopters crisscrossed the sky above Mexico City with spotlights. Some neighborhoods kept electricity while others remained in darkness.
In neighboring Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales spoke on national television to call for calm while emergency crews checked for damage.
“We have reports of some damage and the death of one person, even though we still don’t have details,” Morales said. He said the unconfirmed death occurred in San Marcos state near the border with Mexico.
Lucy Jones, a seismologist in California who works with the U.S. Geological Survey, said such as quake was to be expected.
“Off the west coast of Mexico is what’s called the subduction zone, the Pacific Plate is moving under the Mexican peninsula,” she said. “It’s a very flat fault, so it’s a place that has big earthquakes relatively often because of that.”
“There’s likely to be a small tsunami going to the southwest. It’s not going to be coming up and affecting California or Hawaii,” she said. “For tsunami generation, an 8 is relatively small.”