Pope Benedict XVI offered prayers Thursday for the victims of Peru's powerful 7.9-magnitude earthquake and called for immediate assistance for the hundreds who were injured or made homeless.
The earthquake, which shook Peru's coast near the capital, has killed at least 337 people and injured 827, the Civil Defense said early Thursday.
In the town of Pisco, "the dead are scattered by the dozens on the streets," Mayor Juan Mendoza told Lima radio station CPN, sobbing.
He said at least 200 people were buried under the rumble of a church that collapsed while they were attending a religious service.
"[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.
According to The Associated Press, news reports said dozens of people were crowding hospitals in the city seeking help even though the hospitals had suffered cracks and other structural damage.
The government, meanwhile, rushed police, soldiers, doctors and aid to the region of Ica, south of the capital, but an APTN cameraman trying to reach the city reported that traffic was paralyzed on the Pan American Highway by giant cracks in the pavement and fallen power lines. He said hundreds of vehicles were backed up.
"This is the strongest earthquake I've ever felt," Maria Pilar Mena, 47, a sandwich vendor in Lima, told AP. "When the quake struck, I thought it would never end."
The U.S. Geological Survey said Wednesday's earthquake hit at 6:40 p.m. (7:40 p.m. EDT) about 90 miles southeast of Lima at a depth of about 25 miles. Four strong aftershocks ranging from magnitudes of 5.4 to 5.9 were felt afterward.