Strong quake shakes Mexico; 19 people killed

Published: Wednesday, January 22, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 22, 2003 at 1:42 a.m.

MEXICO CITY - A powerful earthquake shook west-central Mexico late Tuesday, sending panicked residents spilling into the streets of major cities and knocking out power to many areas. Nineteen people were killed in the western state of Colima.

The first estimate from Mexico's national seismological service put the quake's magnitude at 7.6. The agency said it struck at 8:07 p.m. in Colima, a small state which includes the port city of Manzanillo, roughly 300 miles west of Mexico City.

Butch Kinerney, a spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey, said scientists there calculated the magnitude at 7.8.

"Because of the size of the earthquake and its shallow depth, USGS is expecting substantial damage," Kinerney said.

Colima Gov. Fernando Moreno Pena said 19 people were killed in the quake, nine in the capital city of Colima and 10 others elsewhere in his state.

He did not provide details, but radio reports said most of the victims were killed when portions of office and residential buildings collapsed near the center of Colima City.

It was difficult to communicate with all of Colima by telephone, partly due to overloaded lines, but Melchor Usua Quiroz, head of the state's civil defense authorities, told the government news agency Notimex that the quake damaged homes and businesses and briefly left several people trapped in elevators across Colima.

In Guadalajara, the capital of neighboring Jalisco state and Mexico's second-largest city, doctors treated dozens of people for panic. There were no reports of physical injuries.

State civil defense officials said that a hotel and several houses were damaged but there were no reports of massive damage even close to the epicenter.

"In the state of Jalisco we do not have reports of major damage and we do not have victims," Gov. Francisco Ramirez Acuna told a local television station.

President Vicente Fox ordered the military to search for damage in the region, which includes remote villages, and to offer aid to those affected.

The president's office, however, said an early inspection by the Mexican Navy found only power outages.

In Mexico City, people rushed into the streets, many of them barefoot or wrapped in blankets against the chill.

Police cars drove slowly through the streets of Mexico City with sirens flashing, asking people over loudspeakers: "Is everything OK?"

"I felt it very strongly and I saw all the people leave, very scared," said Victor Morales, 46, an apartment building superintendent in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City. "I stayed calm because I trust in God."

Some earthquakes of magnitude 7 have caused massive damage, but the effect of a quake can be affected by many factors, including its depth and the sort of earth through which it passes as it moves away from the epicenter.

Mexico City is built atop a former lakebed in a mountain valley which acts as a sort of amplifier for the motion of quakes.

The last substantial quake in the Colima area was in 1995. It registered 8.0 magnitude and killed 49 people, said Bruce Presgrave, a geophysicist with the USGS in Golden, Colo. At least 100 people were injured in that quake, which was a little northwest of Tuesday's earthquake.

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