A strong 6.4 magnitude earthquake shook major oil exporter Venezuela on Saturday, causing panic in the capital, Caracas, and injuring at least seven people when houses in the countryside collapsed.
The quake, the strongest in the South American nation in years, hit at about 3:40 p.m. local time (2010 GMT), authorities said. It also knocked out power in several regions.
The head of Venezuela’s emergency services, Luis Diaz Curbelo, said the quake was felt across the country, but the northwestern state of Falcon was the hardest hit with seven people hurt and some buildings damaged.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the epicentre was 23 miles (36 km) north-northeast of Puerto Cabello, one of the OPEC nation’s main oil ports. It was below the sea at a depth of 6.2 miles (10 km).
There was no damage to any oil installation, a source at state oil company PDVSA said.
In Caracas several people were slightly hurt when thousands of shoppers stampeded out of one of the city’s largest malls. In the countryside, the walls of some houses made from mud and straw bricks collapsed.
Television reported aftershocks in some regions.
One of Venezuela’s main oil refineries, El Palito, and a petrochemicals complex are located in the region where the tremor was felt most strongly.
The quake also hit the country’s oil heartland of Zulia, where buildings wobbled in state capital Maracaibo.
As in other cities and towns, Caracas residents fled high-rise buildings and streamed into the streets.
“I was having my hair cut when suddenly the chair started wobbling,” said Caracas resident Andrea Reyna, who evacuated a hairdressing salon along with a dozen others.
“It was very strong, really frightening. The whole shop rattled. Now I can’t get through to my children on the phone to see if they’re OK.”
Residents of apartment blocks gathered in public spaces in case of aftershocks.
“You never know. I’m not taking any risks,” said Juan Fernando Lopez, standing next to a swimming pool with his three children outside one upmarket apartment block.
Cellular telephone networks jammed with the flood of calls after the tremor. A Reuters witness said power was out in one part of Caracas, and media reports said other regions were without electricity.
But Hipolito Izquierdo, head of the national electricity company, said on state television that “the electricity service is normal everywhere in the nation.”
Quakes registering magnitude 6.0 or higher are considered capable of severe damage. Earlier the USGS reported said the temblor was a magnitude 7.0 quake.
“The security forces are working to gather reports of damage, in actions to recover any services, electricity, telephones, gas or water that may have failed because of the earthquake,” said Jesse Chacon, minister of light industry and a close aide to President Hugo Chavez.
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Patricia Rondon, Marianna Parraga and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Manuel Hernandez in Maracaibo; Editing by Xavier Briand)