Guayaquil - Ecuador on Monday scrambled to respond to its worst earthquake in decades as the president announced the death toll had soared to 272 and people picked through the rubble of toppled buildings for survivors. 

Guayaquil, the most populous city with more than three million residents, was the biggest to bear the full brunt of the magnitude 7.8 quake, and its effects could still be seen and felt.

"I was in a high-rise in downtown, on the sixth floor," Antonio Torres, a 32-year-old who works as a delivery man in Guayaquil, told Al Jazeera.

We are shaken, but we’ll be fine.

Antonio Torres

"I ran down the stairwell to escape the building, which felt like it was going to fall."

The tower Torres was in stayed standing, but many others collapsed.

"Homes, entire apartment complexes, and several bridges all collapsed. It was very strong," he said.

Many more buildings were damaged, and in the city's historic centre rubble lined the streets. Residents out walking on Sunday evening seemed wary of passing too close to buildings, with many walking in the now car-free streets.

Local authorities cordoned off dangerous areas, and a clean-up operation has begun, but damage was still visible throughout the city.

"We didn’t expect something like this," Daniel Masson, an architect from the capital, Quito, told Al Jazeera.

Landslides and rubble

The 27-year-old said that while Ecuadoreans were used to tremors from the many volcanoes that dot the country, especially around Quito, a quake of this strength was unlike anything he had ever experienced.

The distance from the epicentre Pedernales to Quito is roughly 180 kilometres, and the quake registered as a 6.4 in the capital.

"Last year, we had more than a month where there were almost constant tremors. But that was fine, we got used to it," Masson said.

Much of Ecuador is mountainous, and deadly landslides resulting from the quake have made travel difficult.

People driving from Quito to Guayaquil usually experience roads that wind easily through misty mountaintops. But on Monday they were forced to endure long waits as rubble was cleared and both military and private trucks rushed to deliver aid.

In Guayaquil, the mood was sombre but people said they were determined to pick up the pieces. The threat of a tsunami has passed, and no major aftershocks have claimed property or lives, authorities said.

"We are shaken, but we’ll be fine," Torres said.

Source: Al Jazeera