One of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded struck Chile on Saturday, toppling homes, collapsing bridges and plunging trucks into the fractured earth. A tsunami threatened every nation around the Pacific Ocean - roughly a quarter of the globe.

Chileans near the epicentre were tossed about by the magnitude 8.8 quake as if shaken by a giant. At least 147 people were killed, according to Carmen Fernandez, director of the National Emergency Agency.

The quake shook buildings in Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires, and was felt as far away as Sao Paulo in Brazil - 2,900 kilometres to the east. About 13 million people live in the area where shaking was strong to severe, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

In Talca, 105 kilometres from the epicentre, furniture toppled as the earth shook for more than a minute in something akin to major airplane turbulence. The historic centre of town largely collapsed, but most of the buildings of adobe mud and straw were businesses that were not inhabited during the 3:34 a.m. (1:34 a.m. EST, 0634 GMT) quake.

Neighbours pulled at least five people from the rubble while emergency workers, themselves disoriented, asked for information from reporters.

Collapsed roads and bridges complicated north-south travel in the narrow Andean nation. Electricity, water and phone lines were cut to many areas.

In the Chilean capital of Santiago, 325 kilometres northeast of the epicentre, a car dangled from a collapsed overpass, the national Fine Arts Museum was badly damaged and an apartment building’s two-storey parking lot pancaked, smashing about 50 cars whose alarms rang incessantly.

The jolt set off a tsunami that swamped a village on an island off Chile, then raced across the Pacific, setting off alarm sirens in Hawaii, Polynesia and Tonga.

The first waves were expected to hit Hawaii after 11 a.m. (4 p.m. EST; 2100 GMT) and measure roughly 8 feet at Hilo. Officials evacuated people and boats near the water and closed shore-side Hilo International Airport.

Experts said tsunami waves could hit Asian, Australian and New Zealand shores as well as the U.S. West Coast and Alaska. In all, 53 nations and territories were subject to tsunami warnings.

Waves 6 feet above normal hit Talcahuano near Concepcion 23 minutes after the quake, then inundated the village of San Juan Bautista on Robinson Crusoe Island, 660 kilometres off the Chilean coast. At least three people were missing on the island, said Ivan de la Maza, superintendent of Chile’s principal port zone.

“There was a big wave that covered half of the village,” said de la Maza, who is responsible for the island’s port as well.

A helicopter and a Navy frigate were en route to the island to assist in the search, he said.

President Michelle Bachelet declared a “state of catastrophe” in central Chile but said the government has not asked for assistance from other countries. “The system is functioning. People should remain calm. We’re doing everything we can with all the forces we have,” she said.

Powerful aftershocks rattled Chile’s coast - 41 of them magnitude 5 or greater - in the 10 hours after the quake. Six were sizable quakes in their own right, magnitude 6 or greater.

In Santiago, modern buildings are built to withstand earthquakes, but many older ones were heavily damaged, including the Nuestra Senora de la Providencia church, whose bell tower collapsed. A bridge just outside the capital also collapsed, and at least one car flipped upside down. Several hospitals were evacuated due to earthquake damage, Bachelet said.

Santiago’s airport will remain closed for at least 24 hours after the passenger terminal suffered major damage, airport director Eduardo del Canto told Chilean television. TV images showed smashed windows, partially collapsed ceilings and pedestrian walkways destroyed.

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