The country's president Michelle Bachelet declared a "state of catastrophe" in central Chile and yesterday held a six-hour meeting with aides and emergency officials coping with the magnitude-8.8 quake.
She said a growing number of people were listed as missing and she signed a decree giving over security to the military in the province of Concepcion, where looters have pillaged supermarkets, petrol stations, pharmacies and banks.
A tsunami caused by the quake that swept across the Pacific killed several people on a Chilean island and devastated coastal communities near the epicentre, but caused little damage in other countries, after precautionary evacuations of hundreds of thousands of people. The tsunami warning was lifted a day after the earthquake.
Police said more than 100 people died in Concepcion, the largest city near the epicentre with more than 200,000 people.
The university was among the buildings that caught fire around the city as gas and power lines snapped. Many streets were littered with rubble and inmates escaped from a nearby prison.
Police used a water cannon and tear gas to scatter people who forced open the doors of the Lider supermarket in Concepcion, hauling away everything from nappies to dehydrated milk to a kitchen stove.
Across the Bio Bio river in San Pedro, others cleared out a shopping centre. A video store was set on fire, two ATMs were broken open and a bank robbed.
The largest building damaged in Concepcion was a newly opened 15-storey apartment that toppled backward, trapping an estimated 60 people inside apartments where the floors suddenly became vertical and the contents of every room slammed down onto rear walls.
The quake tore apart houses, bridges and highways, and Chileans near the epicentre were thrown from their beds by the force of the quake, which was felt as far away as Sao Paulo in Brazil – 1,800 miles to the east.
The full extent of damage remained unclear. Ninety aftershocks of magnitude 5 or greater shuddered across the disaster- prone Andean nation within 24 hours of the initial quake. One was nearly as powerful as Haiti's devastating January 12 earthquake.
In the capital Santiago, 200 miles to the north-east of the epicentre, the national Fine Arts Museum was badly damaged and an apartment building's two-storey car park pancaked, smashing about 50 cars.
Santiago's airport was closed and its subway shut down. Chile's main seaport, in Valparaiso, was ordered closed while damage was assessed. Two oil refineries shut down. The state-run Codelco, the world's largest copper producer, halted work at two of its mines, but said it expected them to resume operations quickly.
The jolt set off a tsunami that swamped San Juan Bautista village on Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile, killing at least five people and leaving 11 missing, said Guillermo de la Masa, head of the government emergency bureau for the Valparaiso region.
On the mainland, several huge waves inundated part of the major port city of Talcahuano, near hard-hit Concepcion.
State television showed scenes of devastation in coastal towns.
The surge of water raced across the Pacific, setting off alarm sirens in Hawaii, Polynesia and Tonga, but the tsunami waves proved small and did little damage as they reached as far as Japan.
Robert Williams, a geophysicist at the US Geological Survey, said the Chilean quake was hundreds of times more powerful than Haiti's magnitude-7 quake, though it was deeper and cost far fewer lives.
The largest earthquake ever recorded struck the same area of Chile on May 22, 1960. The magnitude-9.5 quake killed 1,655 people and made 2 million homeless. Yesterday's quake matched a 1906 quake off the Ecuadorian coast as the seventh-strongest ever recorded in the world.