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Over 300 Dead As Massive Earthquake Hits Chile

The rubble of a collpased bridge in the Chilean capital, Santiago

CONCEPCION, Chile (Reuters) -- One of the world's most powerful earthquakes in a century has hit Chile, killing more than 300 people, toppling buildings and triggering tsunamis that have ravaged a port town and threatened Pacific coastlines as far away as Japan.

Buildings caught fire, others crumbled and bridges collapsed across swathes of central Chile, but the initial death toll was relatively low from a quake many times stronger than the one that devastated Haiti last month.

An apartment block with up to 200 people inside collapsed in Concepcion, the closest major city to the epicenter, and rescue officials said they were unsure how many escaped.

Overturned cars lay scattered below a fallen overpass in the capital Santiago and telephone and power lines went down across the narrow country, making it difficult to assess the full extent of the damage and loss of life.

Chile's government said more than 300 people were killed in the 8.8-magnitude quake, which struck at 3:34 a.m. local time, sending people rushing from their beds and onto the streets in fear, hugging each other and crying.

"It came in waves and lasted so long. Three minutes is an eternity. We kept worrying that it was getting stronger, like a terrifying Hollywood movie," said Santiago housewife Dolores Cuevas.

It was the fifth-largest earthquake since 1900 and dealt a serious blow to the economy and infrastructure of the world's No. 1 copper producer and one of Latin America's most developed and stable countries.

The quake halted operations at two oil refineries and two major copper mines and Chile's government said an estimated half a million homes were severely damaged.

In Concepcion, a city of 670,000 people, some residents whose homes were wrecked pushed their belongings in shopping carts on the streets. Water and electrical services were down and many residents camped outdoors, fearful after a series of big aftershocks.

"I've been told I lost all of my furniture, my TV, my refrigerator, but it doesn't matter to me. I'm just happy my family is safe," said Francisco Luna, a 42-year-old air-conditioner repairman.

Chilean officials said the number of deaths was unlikely to increase dramatically, and a U.S. Geological Survey researcher attributed the low toll to Chile's solid building standards.

A tsunami swept into the port town of Talcahuano, causing serious damage to port facilities and lifting fishing boats out of the water. Television pictures showed shipping containers strewn around and flooded streets in the port, one of the most important in southern Chile.

But at least four people were killed and 13 others were missing on the island, a local official said.

Fifteen hours after the quake struck Chile, the tsunami reached Hawaii's Big Island, where residents and tourists were evacuated from low-lying coastal areas. The tsunami warning was later lifted for Hawaii.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake struck 115 kilometers northeast of Concepcion at a depth of 35 kilometers. It said an earthquake of magnitude 8 or over can cause "tremendous damage." The January 12 quake that devastated Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince and killed well over 200,000 people was measured as magnitude 7.0.

Chile's capital of Santiago, about 320 kilometers north of the epicenter, was also badly hit. The international airport was closed for at least 24 hours as the quake destroyed passenger walkways and shook glass out of doors and windows.