Hundreds Die in Remote China Quakes

The death toll from a rapid series of strong earthquakes that hit a mountainous and impoverished area of China’s Qinghai province early Wednesday has reached 589, state-run media said.

At least 10,000 others were injured, the local Xinhua news agency reported, and many victims, including school children, were buried under debris. Rescuers were struggling to clear debris with their hands and save those trapped below.

A 6.9-magnitude earthquake, as measured by the U.S. Geological Survey, struck at 7:49 p.m. local time (7:49 p.m. ET Tuesday), when many citizens were still at home and schools were beginning the day. The USGS also recorded several strong aftershocks – one of magnitude 5.8 – all within hours of the initial quake.

The epicentre was located in remote and rugged terrain, about 150 miles (240 kilometres) northwest of Qamdo, Tibet. Qinghai borders the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xingjiang and the provinces of Gansu and Sichuan.

The Tibetan plateau is regularly shaken by earthquakes, though casualties are usually minimal because so few people live there. Yushu is home to some 100,000 people, spread over a vast area, but the quake struck near the relatively highly-populated county seat of Jyeku.

Karsum Nyima, deputy director of news at local Yushu TV, told Xinhua that most of the houses in the area were made of wood with earthen walls. He said some had come tumbling down, including a Buddhist pagoda in a park. “All of a sudden, the houses collapsed,” he said. “It was a terrible earthquake. In the park, a Buddhist pagoda fell down. Everyone is in the street in front of their houses. They are trying to find family members.” (New York Times)

In the same broadcast, Wu Yong, an officer in the Chinese Army, said that the road to the airport was impassable and that soldiers were digging people out from collapsed homes by hand. “The most important thing now is that this place is far from everything, with few accessible rescue troops available,” Mr. Wu said. “I feel like the number of dead and injured will keep going up.” (New York Times)

The temblors “have toppled houses, temples, gas stations and electric poles, triggered landslides, damaged roads, cut power supplies and disrupted telecommunications,” Xinhua said. “A reservoir was also cracked, where workers are trying to prevent the outflow of water.”

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao ordered local authorities to “go all out to save the disaster-stricken people,” Xinhua said. Vice Premier Hui Liangyu was dispatched to the region.

Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who was born in Qinghai, said in a statement he is praying for the victims. “It is my hope that all possible assistance and relief work will reach these people. I am also exploring how I, too, can contribute to these efforts,” said the Nobel Peace Prize winner, accused by Beijing of promoting Tibetan independence. He says he simply wants more meaningful autonomy for Tibet. (Reuters)

About 700 soldiers were working to clear rubble and rescue buried quake victims, according to Xinhua. More than 5,000 others, including soldiers and medical workers, were sent to the area, the Qinghai provincial government told reporters in a news conference, Xinhua said.

About 1,000 people have been pulled out alive, China’s state-run CCTV reported more than 12 hours after the earthquake. They were taken to one of several locations, chosen based on low probability of aftershocks.

Among those still missing were 20 children buried in the wreckage of a primary school, and as many as 50 people were trapped beneath a collapsed office building that housed the Departments  of Commerce and Industry.

“We’re in the process of trying to rescue the students,” Kang Zifu, a local fire department official, told CCTV on Wednesday afternoon. “We’re hurrying to help them.” (New York Times) He said at least 32 survivors had been pulled from the debris.

The news agency reported panic on the streets as crews launched rescue efforts in the rubble of collapsed buildings.

“We have to mainly rely on our hands to clear away the debris as we have no large excavating machines,” police officer Shi Huajie said. “We have no medical equipment, either.” (CNN)

A Chinese military official told Xinhua that the death toll was expected to rise, given the damage to homes. He said dispatched soldiers were setting up tents and transporting oxygen for the injured but affected roads leading to the airport could hamper relief efforts.

China National Radio, citing an official with the local Red Cross Society of China, said that 70 percent of the school buildings had collapsed in neighbouring Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, an area the size of South Korea that has a population of 350,000. But at least some of the schools had not begun classes yet.

Xinhua quoted a teacher surnamed Chang who said 5 of the 1,000 students at Yushu Primary School had died. “Buildings in our school were all toppled,” Mr. Chang said. “Morning sessions had not begun when the quake happened. Some pupils ran out of the dorm alive, and those who had not escaped in time were buried.” (New York Times)

“Nearly all houses made of mud and wood collapsed. There was so much dust in the air, we couldn’t see anything,” said Ren Yu, general manager of Yushu Hotel in Jiegu, the country’s main town. The hotel was not badly damaged, but staff moved more than 100 guests out of the hotel into open public spaces, Ren told The Associated Press by phone. After transporting guests to safety, hotel staff then helped rescue efforts in other buildings, Ren said. “We pulled out 70 people, but some of them died on the way to the hospital,” Ren said, adding other survivors were put in tents in the hotel yard while awaiting assistance. (CBC)

A spokesman for the local government, Zhuo Huaxia, told Xinhua: “The streets in Jiegu are thronged with panic – injured people, with many bleeding in the head. Many students are buried under the debris due to building collapse at a vocational school. I can see injured people everywhere. The biggest problem now is that we lack tents, we lack medical equipment, medicine and medical workers.” (BBC)

Many bridges are near collapse, CCTV reported, and nearly all the roads in the area were damaged.

A seismologist, Gu Guohua, said in an interview with CCTV that 90 percent of the homes in the country seat, Jeigu, had collapsed. The houses, he said, were of “quite poor quality,” many constructed of wood, mud and brick. (New York Times)

The Ministry of Civil Affairs plans to distribute 5,000 tents, 50,000 coats and 50,000 quilts to the earthquake zone, XInhua said.

The Hong Kong Red Cross said it had mobilized 200,000 Hong Kong dollars (about $27,000) to support the relief operation through providing tents, quilts, clothes and food to victims. The headquarters of the Red Cross Society of China was also sending relief supplies and had dispatched a team to the area for assessment, the organization said in a statement.

“Our top priority is to save students,” Kang Zifu, an army officer in the town of Gyegu, told Xinhua. “Schools are always places that have many people.” Gyegu is the seat of government in the Yushu prefecture, a Tibetan region of Qinghai, the news agency said, and has a population of about 100,000. More than 85 percent of houses in Gyegu had collapsed, a prefecture official told Xinhua. “Many are buried in the collapsed houses, and there are still lots of others who are injured and being treated at local hospitals,” he said. (CNN)

The Hong Kong Red Cross said 90 percent of houses through Yushu had collapsed. Temperatures in the area are forecast to be around the freezing mark at night, the Red Cross said, so “provision of emergency shelters for the victims remains a high priority.” (CNN) Survivors are struggling to stay warm in the mountainous region of about 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) elevation where temperatures drop below 0 degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit) overnight.

Power and water have been cut off and rain is in the forecast. Forecasters said Yushu would see strong winds and sleet in the coming days, which will hamper rescue efforts, Xinhua said.

Mei Mei Leung, a staff member with the World Vision in Beijing, said she thinks it will take her team at least two days to reach the affected area, as local roads were badly damaged in the quakes.

Crews are already trying to clear rubble and repair damaged roads so emergency crews and equipment could be moved into the area.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon says there are no reports of any Canadian deaths or injuries. Offering Canada’s condolences to the people of China, Cannon said Ottawa was deeply concerned for the well-being of all those affected by the disaster.

Other nations have offered funding, condolences or both in the aftermath of the quake, Xinhua reported. They included the European Union, Japan, France, Chad and Algeria.

By nightfall on Wednesday, the local airport was operating with emergency power and receiving flights bringing rescue workers with sniffer dogs. Crews were working on clearing the road to the airport, which was blocked by landslides.

About 5,000 specialist quake rescuers had been dispatched from neighbouring provinces plus tents, clothing and blankets.

Many people have fled to surrounding mountains, amid fears that a nearby dam could burst in the string of aftershocks hitting the area. State media reported that officials were trying to drain a reservoir after a crack appeared in the dam.

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