Quake in China Kills Thousands

A powerful earthquake hits Sichuan province in central China, killing and injuring thousands of people. Listen to Washington Post reporter Jill Drew discuss the earthquake from Beijing.Audio: Jill Drew/The Washington PostPhotos Courtesy of: AFP, Getty Images, AP, Reuters, China DailyEditor: Jonathan Forsythe/washingtonpost.com
[Map: Earthquake in Sichuan Province, China]
By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

BEIJING, May 13 -- A powerful earthquake hit central China on Monday, killing nearly 10,000 people, as schools and other buildings collapsed across eight provinces and tremors shook buildings as far away as Bangkok.

State media reported widespread damage, and officials feared that the death toll could rise sharply as rescue teams reached areas affected by the massive quake, the worst to strike the country in three decades.

Most of the damage appeared to be in Sichuan province, where as many as 5,000 people died and 10,000 were injured in one county alone, state media reported. The collapse of one high school left 1,000 students and teachers dead or missing, while further south, as many as 900 students were trapped beneath the rubble of another town's devastated high school.

"People were terrified," said Huang Shi Hua, who had just watched rescuers loading victims into ambulances near the city of Chongqing, where a primary school had collapsed, killing four children.

The 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck at 2:28 p.m. and was centered 55 miles northwest of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, according to China's State Seismological Bureau. More than 1,000 aftershocks jolted the region, state media reported, and the quake was felt nearly 1,000 miles away in Beijing, where workers poured into the streets as office towers swayed.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Chengdu just a few hours after the quake hit to oversee rescue efforts and establish a temporary headquarters for disaster relief. An estimated 50,000 soldiers, police and reservists were dispatched to the area to provide aid as Chinese President Hu Jintao called for "all-out" efforts to rescue quake victims. The deployment of the military, in particular, sent a signal of urgency in a country that carefully calibrates the use of its armed forces.

Rescuers, meanwhile, worked through the night to locate victims and provide medical care.

Li Jing, general engineer of China's National Disaster Reduction Center, said the full scale of the devastation is unclear because communication and transportation links to mountainous Sichuan province were badly damaged. He said rescuers will place a priority on getting water and medicine to the affected regions as quickly as possible to minimize the loss of life.

Cellphone communication in the area failed after 2,300 base stations and five power plants shut down, officials said. Chengdu airport closed and flights throughout the country were disrupted.

Telephone calls could not be connected to emergency officials in Wenchuan county, the sparsely populated area at the quake's center. Wenchuan, home to China's leading giant panda reserve, is to the south of Beichuan county, where up to 80 percent of the buildings collapsed.

A rescue team set out for Wenchuan on foot at 10 p.m. Monday, walked through the night and had about 45 miles to go at about 6:30 a.m. Tuesday. Local officials, via satellite phone, appealed for urgent help.

Li Chongxi, a high-level Communist Party official in Sichuan, attempted to lead a rescue team to Wenchuan but could not get through. "We are doing everything we can, but the roads are blanketed with rocks and boulders," he was quoted as telling the New China News Agency.

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