At least 15 people are dead after one of the most powerful earthquakes in Mexico’s history struck late Thursday on its southern coast, toppling buildings, damaging hospitals and sending skyscrapers swaying hundreds of miles away.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake hit about 60 miles off the coast of Chiapas state with a magnitude of 8.1 — slightly stronger than the devastating magnitude 8 quake of 1985 that killed thousands of people in Mexico City.
While Mexican seismologists initially claimed Thursday’s earthquake was a magnitude 8.4, the National Seismology Institute said Friday that it had revised its measurement and now believes it was an 8.2.
Fifty million Mexicans are estimated to have felt the quake, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said, and schools were closed across 11 states Friday so authorities could check them for safety. About 1.5 million people lost electricity after the earthquake toppled power lines across the country, he said, but by Friday morning power had been restored to about 800,000 users.
The most severe damage appears to have been contained to the states of Oaxaca, Tabasco and Chiapas, all near the earthquake epicenter, where at least 15 people died, National Civil Defense chief Luis Felipe Puente told Mexico’s Televisa news.
Many of the most affected areas were rural and home to largely indigenous populations. Photos and videos from those areas show buildings reduced to rubble and victims being rushed to hospitals. Chiapas Gov. Manuel Velasco, who expressed concern Friday that some hospitals were still without power, told the Associated Press that three people were killed in San Cristobal, including two women who died when a house and a wall collapsed
Velasco called on people living near the coast to leave their houses as a protective measure amid fears that the earthquake could trigger a tsunami.
Tsunami waves of 2.3 feet were observed early Friday in Huatulco, a resort city in Mexico’s Oaxaca state, and 3.3 feet at the port of Salina Cruz several hours away, according to the National Weather Service’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.
The U.S. Geological Survey recorded at least 20 aftershocks of magnitude 4.0 or greater within about five hours after the main shake, and Peña Nieto warned that a major aftershock as large as magnitude 7.2 could occur.
The USGS said the quake struck at 9:49 p.m. Pacific time Thursday and its epicenter was about 60 miles off the coast of Chiapas state, . It had a depth of 43.3 miles.
The quake caused buildings to sway violently in Mexico's capital 460 miles away, where people in pajamas fled into the streets, gathering in frightened groups.
Buildings shook for about a minute — even the city’s iconic Angel of Independence Monument was seen swaying — and the sky lighted up as electrical transformers exploded. Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera told Televisa news channel there were electrical outages in parts of the city but no reports of collapsed buildings or deaths.
Built on a former lake bed, Mexico City is especially vulnerable to earthquake damage, and earthquakes weigh heavy on the psyche of residents here after the 1985 earthquake devastated large swaths of the city and killed at least 5,000 people.
USGS geophysicist Robert Sanders said Thursday’s earthquake struck twice as far away from the capital as the 1985 earthquake, which caused more than 400 multistory buildings to collapse.
Tabasco Gov. Arturo Nunez told the Associated Press that two children had died in his Gulf coast state. One of them was killed when a wall collapsed, and the other was a baby who died in a children's hospital that lost electricity, cutting off the infant's ventilator.
The quake hit as Mexican emergency agencies were bracing for another crisis on the other side of the country. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Hurricane Katia was likely to strike the Gulf coast in the state of Veracruz early Saturday as a Category 2 storm that could bring life-threatening floods.
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.
The quake occurred in a very seismically active region near the point of collision between three tectonic plates, the Cocos, the Caribbean and the North American.
Mexico's National Seismological Service said the area has seen at least six other quakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater since 1900 — though three of those all occurred within a nerve-wracking nine-month span in 1902-03.
Ron Lin of the Times contributed to this report from Los Angeles.