Quake ravages western China

Tremors kill at least 10,000 and leave untold numbers trapped

By Jake Hooker and Jim Yardley
New York Times News Service / May 13, 2008

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CHENGDU, China - A powerful earthquake struck western China yesterday, toppling thousands of homes, factories, and offices, trapping students in schools, and killing at least 10,000 people, the country's worst natural disaster in three decades.

The quake, which was estimated preliminarily to have had a magnitude of 7.9, ravaged a mountainous region outside Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, just after lunchtime yesterday, destroying 80 percent of structures in some of the towns and small cities near its epicenter, Chinese officials said. Its tremors were felt as far away as Vietnam and set off another smaller quake in the outskirts of Beijing, 900 miles away.

Landslides, power outages and fallen mobile phone towers left much of the affected area cut off from the outside world and limited information about the damage. But snapshots of concentrated devastation suggested that the death toll could rise markedly as rescuers reach the most heavily damaged areas.

In the town of Juyuan, south of the epicenter in the city of Wenchuan, a middle school collapsed, trapping 900 students in the rubble and setting off a frantic search for survivors that stretched through the night.

Two chemical factories in Shifang were destroyed, spilling 80 tons of toxic, liquid ammonia, officials told Chinese state media.

The destruction of a steam turbine factory in the city of Mianzhu buried "several thousand" people, the Xinhua News Agency reported this morning.

The quake was China's biggest natural disaster since another earthquake leveled the city of Tangshan in eastern China in 1976, leaving at least 240,000 people dead and posing a severe challenge to the ruling Communist Party, which initially tried to cover up the disaster.

This time, officials mobilized some 50,000 soldiers to help with rescue efforts, state media said. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao flew to the scene, and was shown coordinating disaster response teams from his jet.

The prime minister was later shown on national television standing outside the heavily damaged Traditional Medicine Hospital in the city of Dujiangyan, shouting encouragement at people trapped in its ruins.

"Hang on a bit longer. The troops are rescuing you," he said. "As long as there is the slightest hope, we will never relax our efforts."

The quake was the latest event to disrupt China's planning for the Olympic Games in August, including widespread unrest among the country's ethnic Tibetan population, which lives in large numbers in the same part of Sichuan Province where the earthquake struck.

The powerful initial quake struck at 2:28 p.m. near Wenchuan County, according to China's State Seismological Bureau. Most of the heavy damage appeared to be concentrated in nearby towns, which by Chinese standards are not heavily populated. Chengdu, the largest city in the area with a population of about 10 million, is about 60 miles away, and did not appear to have major damage or heavy casualties.

But officials had yet to describe the impact in Wenchuan, which has a population of 112,000 and is home to the Wolong Nature Reserve, the largest panda reserve in China. Beichuan, on the way from Chengdu to Wenchuan, had several thousand deaths, state media said.

China's massive Three Gorges Dam, located a few hundred miles east of the earthquake's epicenter, reported no immediate problems. "There were no signs that the earthquake has affected the dam, and everything is going as usual," Hu Xinge, an executive with the state-owned corporation operating the dam, told Xinhua, the state-run news agency.

At dawn this morning in Chengdu, clusters of people were huddled outside, many saying they were too fearful of aftershocks to go indoors. Many wore plastic slickers in the steady drizzle.

Wang Zihong, 35, a businessman from Gansu Province, had spent 12 hours outside his hotel, squatting with others on a street corner.

"It was a terrible shock," he said. "I couldn't stand up straight. We were on the second floor and we ran outside."

Chengdu's Huaxi Hospital, one of the largest in western China, started receiving patients from surrounding counties yesterday afternoon. By this morning, 180 patients had arrived from hard-hit surrounding counties.

"Seven thousand people have died in Beichuan, a single county, and we think Wenchuan will be similar, too, because it was the epicenter," said Kang Zhilin, a spokesman for the hospital.

Minutes after the western temblor struck, a second, smaller quake struck Tongzhou, an outer district of Beijing.

Thousands of office workers were evacuated in the capital city, but no damage was reported there.

"I suddenly felt very dizzy, as if I were heavily drunk," said Zeng Hui, who works on the 22d floor of an office tower in Beijing. "I thought I was seriously ill, then I looked around and saw my colleagues felt the same way. We were stunned."

There were reports of fatalities in Chongqing municipality, near Sichuan, where two primary schools were damaged. Four pupils died and more than 100 others were injured, state media reported.

Efforts to reach people near the epicenter of the bigger quake in western China were hindered by the damaged telephone system. Some 2,300 towers used to transmit mobile phone signals had fallen, the country's main mobile phone company reported.

The earthquake also disrupted air traffic control in western China, interfering with flights between Asia and Europe yesterday afternoon, although flight services were restored by the evening.

Xinhua devoted extensive coverage to the disaster, publishing regular updates, including latest death tolls, on its Chinese and English websites.

The relatively vigorous flow of information and the fast response from top officials and rescue workers stood in stark contrast to the way China handled the Tangshan earthquake, or the way the military junta that rules neighboring Burma has managed the aftermath of a giant cyclone that killed nearly 32,000 people there earlier this month, according to Burmese government estimates.

Cathay Pacific Airways announced that it had canceled two flights between Hong Kong and London - one in each direction - and had delayed the departure of a Monday afternoon flight from Hong Kong to London by 19 hours, to this morning.

"Cathay Pacific is monitoring the situation in Sichuan very closely," the company said in a statement yesterday evening. "Flights to and from Europe tonight are in normal operation."

While China Mobile acknowledged extensive damage to its cellphone towers, it is less clear how much damage occurred to the separate communications network that China's authorities maintain for natural disasters and other contingencies.

Communications equipment vendors attending a police equipment exhibition in Beijing last month said that China maintained a separate network using different frequencies and other equipment from the main cellphone network. The separate network exists so that the police and other agencies can respond to emergencies even when the main landline and cellphone networks are overwhelmed with calls by residents. top stories on Twitter

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