A 7.4-magnitude earthquake struck off the Pacific coast of Guatemala on Wednesday, killing at least 39 people as it ravaged a small state near the Mexican border, the country's president said.
The mountain village of San Marcos, 80 miles (130 kilometres) from the epicenter, suffered much of the damage with about 30 homes collapsing in its centre. Hundreds of frightened villagers were on the streets, one of which was cracked open by the temblor, the strongest to hit Guatemala since a deadly 1976 quake that killed 23,000.
More than 300 people, including firefighters, policemen and villagers, worked at a sand extraction site to rescue seven people reported buried alive, including a 6-year-old boy that had accompanied his grandfather to work.
"I want to see Giovanni! I want to see Giovanni!" the boy's mother, Francisca Ramirez, frantically cried. "He's not dead. Get him out."
President Otto Perez Molina told a news conference that he has been informed that the death toll stands at 39 people. The dead are in the northwestern state of San Marcos near the Mexican border, where the majority of the damage occurred.
The quake, about 20 miles deep, was centred about 15 miles off the coastal town of Champerico and about 100 miles southwest of Guatemala City, shaking buildings as far away as Mexico City and El Salvador.
Survivors by radio and social media talked of widespread landslides and people trapped.
"I've been in Guatemala for almost two years I am used to earthquakes. This was a lot more severe, a lot more shaky," said Peace Corps volunteer Adam Baker, 27, of Carmel, Indiana, who tweeted a picture of a small landslide behind his house in the nearby state of Quetzaltenango. "Things fell in my kitchen."
Perez said more than 2,000 soldiers were deployed from a base in San Marcos to help with disaster relief. A plane had already made two trips with special disaster relief teams to the San Marcos area, about 80 miles from the epicentre. He asked that civilians in the country of 14 million stay put and not travel on highways because of the collapse highways and debris. He also encouraged people in the affected areas to evacuate.
The president said the country was on the highest level of alert for subsequent earthquakes in the next few hours. Perez encouraged civilians in affected areas to evacuate and avoid tall buildings.
"There is very high risk of aftershocks," the president said, adding that 150 people had already been evacuated by air.
Nicaragua's disaster management agency said it had issued a local tsunami alert, but there were no immediate reports of a tsunami on the country's Pacific coast.
The country's minister of communications and infrastructure told Emisoras Unidas that landslides had cut off several highways in the west of the country, and it would take at least 24 hours to reestablish transport links to San Marcos, the capital of the department or state of the same name located along Guatemala's northwest border with Mexico.