Peru Quake Toll Tops 500

Aug 17, 2007 05:17 AM EDT

The death toll from the magnitude-8 quake that devastated the southern coast of Peru topped 500 by Friday morning, officials said, as rescuers continued to comb rubble for survivors.

Peru's fire department said the death toll from Wednesday evening’s powerful earthquake had risen to 510, and rescuers were still digging through ruins of collapsed adobe homes in cities and hamlets.

In the port city of Pisco, searchers at San Clemente church pulled at least 60 bodies out of the ruins. Around 200 people were reportedly buried in the church after its ceiling tumbled down on hundreds of worshippers who were gathered for a special Mass on the day that Roman Catholics celebrate the rise into heaven of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

"We keep losing hope of finding someone alive after 24 hours have passed" since the quake struck, Health Minister Carlos Vallejos told The Associated Press outside of the church.

Pisco Mayor Juan Mendoza, meanwhile, told Lima radio station CPN: "The dead are scattered by the dozens on the streets. We don't have lights, water, communications. Most houses have fallen. Churches, stores, hotels — everything is destroyed."

World Vision, one of the world’s largest Christian relief and development organization, said Thursday it was ready to respond to the powerful quake and aid the victims.

The international agency also reported that its staff and sponsored children in Peru are safe. World Vision has worked in Peru since 1965 and opened a national office in Lima in 1985. It now operates more than two dozen development programs in the country and helps sponsor more than 20,000 children in Peru through U.S. donors.

“We have been in contact with our staff and the children in World Vision programs and all are reported safe,” said Caleb Meza, World Vision’s National Director for Peru, in a statement. “World Vision is prepared to provide relief supplies if the government requests aid.”

The Christian organization is working with the Peruvian government to assess needs and has provided trucks loaded and ready to deliver clothes and other materials to keep homeless victims warm.

“The greatest needs right now are for blankets and warm clothing,” said Yadira Pacheco, WV’s communication manager in Peru. “It is winter season here.”

Meanwhile, doctors struggled to help more than 1,500 injured, including hundreds who waited on cots in the open air, fearing more aftershocks would send buildings crashing down.

“Hospitals are at capacity. It is important that people get medical supplies,” Pacheco added.

Pope Benedict XVI offered prayers Thursday for the victims and called for immediate assistance for the injured and homeless.

"[The Pope] encourages institutions and people of goodwill to offer the necessary help to those harmed, with a spirit of Christian solidarity and charity," the Vatican said in a telegram, signed by Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, according to Reuters.

Scientists said Wednesday’s quake was a "megathrust" – a type of earthquake similar to the catastrophic Indian Ocean temblor in 2004 that generated deadly tsunami waves.

"Megathrusts produce the largest earthquakes on the planet," said USGS geophysicist Paul Earle, according to AP.

Although the magnitude of the quake was initially reported to be 7.9, the U.S. Geological Survey later raised it to 8 on Thursday. At least 14 aftershocks of magnitude 5 or greater caused renewed anxiety, though there were no reports of additional damage or injuries.

Contributor Michelle Vu in Washington contributed to this article.