One of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in Mexico struck off the country’s southern coast, toppling hundreds of buildings, triggering tsunami evacuations and sending panicked people fleeing into the streets in the middle of the night. At least 35 people were reported killed.
The quake that hit minutes before midnight Thursday was strong enough to cause buildings to sway violently in the capital city more than 650 miles away. As beds banged against walls, people still wearing pajamas ran out of their homes and gathered in frightened groups.
Rodrigo Soberanes, who lives near San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, the state nearest the epicenter, said his house “moved like chewing gum.”
The worst-hit city appeared to be Juchitan, on the narrow waist of Oaxaca known as the Isthmus. About half of the city hall collapsed in a pile of rubble and streets were littered with the debris of ruined houses. Local officials said at least 17 of the 35 dead were in Juchitan.
Mexico’s capital escaped major damage, but the quake terrified sleeping residents, many of whom still remember the catastrophic 1985 earthquake that killed thousands and devastated large parts of the city.
Elsewhere, the extent of destruction was still emerging. Hundreds of buildings collapsed or were damaged, power was cut at least briefly to more than 1.8 million people and authorities closed schools Friday in at least 11 states to check them for safety.
Oaxaca state Gov. Alejandro Murat told local news media that at least 23 people had died in his coastal state. Officials said at least 10 died in Chiapas and two others in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco.
Dozens of strong aftershocks rattled the region in the following hours.
Scientists were still reviewing data, but a preliminary analysis indicated the quake was triggered by the sudden breaking or bending of the Cocos plate, which dives beneath Mexico. That type of process does not happen often in subduction zones. Usually, big quakes in subduction zones occur along the boundary between the sinking slab and the overriding crust.
“It’s unusual, but it’s not unheard of,” said seismologist Susan Hough of the USGS, describing how stresses on the seafloor can produce big earthquakes.