MEXICO CITY, Mexico — A massive 8.1-magnitude earthquake hit off the coast of southern Mexico, toppling houses in Chiapas state, causing buildings to sway violently as far away as the country’s distant capital city and setting off a tsunami warning.
The US Geological Survey said the quake struck at 11:49 p.m. Thursday local time and its epicenter was 165 kilometers (102 miles) west of Tapachula in southern Chiapas state not far from Guatemala. It had a depth of 35 kilometers (22 miles).
The US Tsunami Warning System said hazardous tsunami waves were possible on the Pacific coasts of several Central American countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and Honduras, within three hours. There was no tsunami threat for the US West Coast, but the warning system said waves could reach Mexico and as far as Ecuador.
“The house moved like chewing gum and the light and internet went out momentarily,” said Rodrigo Soberanes, who lives near San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, a poor largely indigenous state popular with tourists.
Civil Defense in Chiapas said on its Twitter account that its personnel were in the streets aiding people and warned residents to prepare for aftershocks. But it made no immediate comment about damage.
The quake was so powerful that frightened residents in Mexico City more than 1,000 kilometers (650 miles) away fled apartment buildings, often in their pajamas, and gathered in groups in the street.
Buildings swayed strongly for more than one minute, loosening light fixtures from ceilings.
Helicopters crisscrossed the sky above Mexico City with spotlights. Some neighborhoods kept electricity while others remained in darkness.
In neighboring Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales spoke on national television to call for calm while emergency crews checked for damage. Local radio in the Central American country reported one death, but it could not be confirmed.
“We have reports of some damage and the death of one person, even though we still don’t have exact details,” Morales said. He said the possible death occurred in San Marcos state near the border with Mexico.