By Ken Moritsugu
An overnight earthquake killed at least 118 people in a cold and mountainous region in northwestern China, provincial officials said Tuesday, in the nation’s deadliest quake in 10 years.
Emergency authorities in Gansu province issued an appeal for 300 additional workers to comb through collapsed buildings and for other search and rescue operations. Officials in neighbouring Qinghai reported 20 people missing in a landslide, according to Chinese state-owned media.
The magnitude 6.2 earthquake left more than 500 people injured, severely damaged houses and roads, and knocked out power and communication lines, provincial officials and media reports said.
It struck just before midnight on Monday near the boundary between the two provinces at a relatively shallow depth of 10 kilometres, the China Earthquake Networks Center said. The U.S. Geological Survey measured the magnitude at 5.9.
By mid-morning, 105 people had been confirmed dead in Gansu and another 397 injured, including 16 in critical condition, a provincial emergency department official said at a news conference. Thirteen others were killed and 182 injured in Qinghai in an area north of the epicentre, a local Communist Party official said at a separate news conference.
The earthquake was felt in much of the surrounding area, including Lanzhou, the Gansu provincial capital, about 100 kilometres northeast of the epicentre. Photos and videos posted by a student at Lanzhou University showed students hastily leaving a dormitory building and standing outside with long down jackets over their pajamas.
“The earthquake was too intense,” said Wang Xi, the student who posted the images. “My legs went weak, especially when we ran downstairs from the dormitory.”
The death toll was the highest since an April 2013 earthquake that killed 196 people in southwest China’s Sichuan province. The country’s deadliest earthquake in recent years was a 7.9 magnitude quake in 2008 that killed nearly 90,000 people and devastated towns and schools in Sichuan, leading to a years-long effort to rebuild with more resistant materials.
The latest quake struck in Gansu’s Jishishan county, about five kilometres from the provincial boundary with Qinghai. The epicentre was about 1,300 kilometres southwest of Beijing, the Chinese capital. There were nine aftershocks by 10 a.m., about 10 hours after the initial earthquake, the largest one registering a magnitude of 4.1, a Gansu official said.
The remote and mountainous area is home to several predominantly Muslim ethnic groups and near some Tibetan communities. Geographically, it is in the centre of China, though the area is commonly referred to as the northwest, as it is at the northwestern edge of China’s more populated plains.
Tents, folding beds and quilts were being sent to the disaster area, state broadcaster CCTV said. It quoted Chinese leader Xi Jinping as calling for an all-out search and rescue effort to minimize the casualties. The overnight low in the area was -15 to -9 C, the China Meteorological Administration said.
The Beijing Youth Daily, a Communist Party newspaper, quoted an unnamed rescue coordinator saying there was a need for generators, long coats and fuel for stoves, among other items. The co-ordinator recommended sending halal food because of the ethnic makeup of the affected population.
At least 4,000 firefighters, soldiers and police officers were dispatched in the rescue effort, and the People’s Liberation Army Western Theatre set up a command post to direct its work.
Han Shujun, a spokesperson for the Gansu provincial emergency management department, asked people to avoid going to the quake-hit areas to prevent traffic jams that could hinder the rescue and relief work.
A video posted by the Ministry of Emergency Management showed emergency workers in orange uniforms using rods to try to move heavy pieces of what looked like concrete debris at night. Other nighttime videos distributed by state media showed workers lifting out a victim and helping a slightly stumbling person to walk in an area covered with light snow.
Middle school student Ma Shijun ran out of his dormitory barefoot without even putting on a coat, according to a Xinhua report. It said the strong tremors left his hands a bit numb, and that teachers quickly organized the students on the playground.
CCTV reported that there was damage to water and electricity lines, as well as transportation and communications infrastructure.
Earthquakes are somewhat common in the mountainous area of western China that rises up to form the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau.
Last year in September, 93 people were killed in a 6.8 magnitude earthquake that shook China’s southwestern province of Sichuan, triggering landslides and shaking buildings in the provincial capital of Chengdu, where 21 million residents were under a COVID-19 lockdown.
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