By Jorge Dan and Milton Castillo
SAN MARCOS, Guatemala (Reuters) - Rescue workers on Thursday carted out dead bodies found under rubble in the aftermath of Guatemala's most powerful earthquake in decades, while others cleared wrecked cars and collapsed buildings as they searched for survivors.
At least 52 people were killed in the 7.5 magnitude quake on Wednesday, many of them crushed under debris in San Marcos state, a mountainous region near the Mexican border.
Nearly two dozen people were still missing and President Otto Perez forecast that the death toll would climb.
"Sadly we expect the number to keep rising," Perez told reporters in Guatemala City, adding that 22 people were missing and around 200 injured.
Emergency workers said they pulled seven people alive from rubble at a construction site on the outskirts of San Marcos city.
Lying in a hospital bed in obvious pain, Jesus Ramirez recounted how he tried to rescue his nieces and became trapped.
"My mother shouted to me to go and see my nieces ... I wanted to pull them out, but couldn't because the wall of my house fell on them and on me too," he said. "I lost my leg, they amputated it."
His mother and two nieces were later found dead.
On the outskirts of San Marcos city, rescuers stepped up efforts at a collapsed construction site. Emergency workers in white hard hats used tractors and trucks to shift debris blocking roads. Cars were crushed, highways were peppered with gaping cracks and modest homes had crumbled.
"The people of San Marcos are in deep mourning," said Wilfred de Leon, one of whose relatives was buried by rubble and feared dead.
The quake destroyed roads and forced evacuations as far away as Mexico City. However output and exports of staple crop coffee were not affected, Ricardo Villanueva, president of Guatemala's national coffee association Anacafe, told Reuters.
Guatemala is Central America's second biggest coffee producer.
It was the strongest earthquake to hit the Central American nation since 1976, when a 7.5-magnitude quake killed more than 20,000 people.
Hundreds of people spent Wednesday night in shelters and help has poured in from afar afield as Taiwan, including 44 tonnes of humanitarian aid destined for San Marcos.
Perez flew to Quetzaltenango, the country's second largest city, to survey nearby damage. He said nearly 3,000 people had been evacuated from their homes, while more than 1 million have been affected by the quake.
"Reconstruction will not be easy because there are homes that are uninhabitable," Perez said, adding that the government had set aside $60 million for rebuilding.
He announced a state of emergency in four of Guatemala's 22 states - San Marcos, Quetzaltenango, Quiche and Huehuetenango.
"When the earth shook, we all left running," said Policarpia Lopez, 55, housed in a shelter in the town of Laguna Cuaches, in nearby Quetzaltenango state. "Now we have nothing, not even water."
Local Red Cross chief Carlos Enrique Alvarado said on Wednesday that 75 homes were destroyed in the city of San Marcos alone. Authorities said damage to the prison forced them to transfer 101 inmates to another jail.
Perez, who announced three days of national mourning, said he was suspending all vacation time for more than 25,000 members of the national police force, who are being enlisted in rescue and cleanup efforts.
The quake's epicenter was 26 miles below the surface, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It was felt in El Salvador and more than 760 miles away in Mexico City, where some people also fled offices and homes.
(With reporting by Mike McDonald in Quetzaltenango and Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Simon Gardner and Kieran Murray)