KATHMANDU - A powerful earthquake struck Nepal and sent tremors through northern India on Saturday, killing hundreds of people, toppling an historic 19th-century tower in the capital Kathmandu and touching off a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest.

There were reports of devastation in outlying, isolated mountainous areas after the quake struck with a magnitude of 7.9, the worst in 81 years, with its epicentre 50 miles (80 km) east of Nepal’s second largest city, Pokhara.

A collapse in communications hampered relief efforts, raising fears of a humanitarian disaster across the impoverished Himalayan nation of 28 million people. A home ministry official told Reuters said the death toll had reached 1341 in Nepal. A further 34 fatalities were reported in northern India and one in Bangladesh. The quake was shallow in depth, intensifying its destructive force.

Indian tourist Devyani Pant was in a Kathmandu coffee shop with friends when ‘suddenly the tables started trembling and paintings on the wall fell on the ground. ‘I screamed and rushed outside,’ she told Reuters by telephone from the capital, where at least 181 people died.

‘We are now collecting bodies and rushing the injured to the ambulance. We are being forced to pile several bodies one above the other to fit them in.’ A tourism official said at least eight people were killed when an avalanche unleashed by the earthquake swept through the Everest Base Camp for climbers of the world’s highest mountain. Choti Sherpa, who works at the Everest Summiteers Association, was unable to call her family and colleagues on the mountain. ‘Everyone is trying to contact each other, but we can’t,’ she said. ‘We are all very worried.’

Around 300,000 foreign tourists were estimated to be in Nepal for the spring trekking and climbing season, and officials were overwhelmed by calls from concerned friends and relatives. ‘We are facing a tremendous crisis here and it is hard to even assess what the death toll and the extent of damage could be,’ said Mohan Krishna Sapkota, a second tourism official. ‘The trekkers are scattered all around the base camp and some had even trekked further up. It is almost impossible to get in touch with anyone.’ A landlocked nation sandwiched between India and China, popular with adventure tourists, Nepal has had its share of natural disasters. Its worst earthquake in 1934 killed more than 8,500 people.

Political instability weakens the ability of the government to handle a crisis - Nepal has still not upgraded its weather forecasting despite being surprised by unseasonal blizzards last autumn that killed 32 in the Annapurna massif. In 2001, Nepal burst into global headlines when then-Crown Prince Dipendra gunned down 10 members of his family, including his father, King Birendra Shah, before killing himself.

A Maoist rebellion subsequently asserted power, transformed the kingdom into a republican democracy and abolished the monarchy altogether in 2008. Nepal, however, has yet to agree on a new constitution. The revered Dharara Tower collapsed in Kathmandu when the quake erupted shortly before noon local time. A policeman said that up to 200 people had been trapped in the structure. Built in 1832 for the queen of Nepal, the tower was a 60-metre-(100-foot)-high landmark that had been open to visitors for the last 10 years and had a viewing balcony. A jagged stump just 10 metres high was all that was left of the lighthouse-like structure. Several bodies were extracted from the ruins. At the main hospital in Kathmandu, people with broken limbs and arms were being rushed in for treatment. Crowds and volunteers formed human chains to clear the way for ambulances to bring in the injured. Kathmandu is home to ancient, wooden Hindu temples.

Photographs posted online showed buildings reduced to rubble, with large cracks along roads and residents sitting in the street holding babies. ‘I can see three bodies of monks trapped in a debris of a collapsed building near a monastery,’ said Pant, the Indian tourist. ‘We are trying to pull the bodies out and look for anyone who is trapped.’ Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired an emergency meeting and dispatched a military air transporter with three tonnes of supplies and a 40-member disaster response team to Nepal. Three more planes were to follow later on Saturday, carrying a mobile hospital and further relief teams.

International aid groups rushed to respond Saturday to a massive earthquake in Nepal that claimed more than 1,000 lives as aftershocks and severed communications hampered rescue efforts.

“We do not yet know the scope of the damage, but this could be one of the deadliest and most devastating earthquakes since the 1934 tremor which devastated Nepal and Bihar,” said Jagan Chapagain, Asia/Pacific director of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The IFCR said it was extremely concerned about the fate of rural villages close to the epicentre of the quake, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the capital Kathmandu.

“Roads have been damaged or blocked by landslides and communication lines are down preventing us from reaching local Red Cross branches to get accurate information,” said Chapagain in a statement. “We anticipate that there will be considerable destruction and loss of life.”

Other aid organisations responding to the emergency also struggled to assess the needs with communications cut off around the Himalayan nation. “Communication is currently very difficult. Telephone lines are down and the electricity has been cut off making charging mobile phones difficult,” said Cecilia Keizer, Oxfam country director in Nepal.

“People are gathered in their thousands in open spaces and are scared as there have been several aftershocks,” she added. French aid group Action Against Hunger (ACF) said in a statement its teams in Nepal “were on their way to the affected areas to assess the damage and the needs” to mount a humanitarian response.

Nations around world have also reacted to the deadly 7.8 magnitude quake that rocked Nepal on Saturday. The United States is sending a disaster response team and has authorized an initial $1 million in aid to address immediate needs, the US Agency for International Development said.

The European Union also said its humanitarian experts were heading to the crisis areas. “The full extent of the casualties and damage is still unknown but reports indicate they will likely be high, both in terms of loss of life, injuries and damage to cultural heritage,” the EU statement said. Condolences to the Nepalese people and all those affected by the devastating quake came from leaders across the globe, including China’s Xi Jinping, France’s Francois Hollande and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

In Europe, Britain, Germany and Spain also pledged support and assistance, with Norway promising to provide 30 million krone ($3.9 million, 3.5 million euros) in humanitarian aid. “It is now important to get an overview of what the needs are so that relief efforts can be brought in as quickly and efficiently as possible. The funds will be channelled through the UN system and NGOs,” said Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende in a statement. In Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, office towers and apartment blocks have collapsed and the main hospitals are functioning but stretched to capacity, the IFRC said.

“I was in my fifth floor apartment and the shaking was extremely violent... we could see dust rising from the hills around the city and luckily we were able to evacuate,” said a British Red Cross worker in Kathmandu. Strong aftershocks risk causing further damage to buildings and have triggered fears among the local population, many of whom are afraid to return to their homes, the IFRC said.