/ 12 May 2008

Powerful quake kills thousands in China

A massive earthquake stunned south-west China on Monday, killing more than 8 000 people and flattening schools, factories and homes in a powerful tremor that was felt across a swathe of South-East Asia.

The quake, with a magnitude of 7,8, struck close to densely populated areas of Sichuan province in what Premier Wen Jiabao called a ”major disaster”.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported 8 533 confirmed dead in that province alone, but there were fears the toll will rise far higher with others killed in neighbouring regions and reports of hundreds buried under debris.

Buildings swayed in Beijing and Shanghai, while the quake was also felt in Hong Kong, Hanoi and Taipei and in the Thai capital, Bangkok, 1 800km from the epicentre.

”Facing disaster, the most important thing is calm, confidence, courage and strong leadership,” Wen told China’s CCTV television on a flight to the heart of the quake-hit zone.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency cited local disaster-relief officials saying 3 000 to 5 000 people were estimated to have died in just one district of Sichuan, Beichuan County.

A further 10 000 people were injured in the county, where officials said 80% of buildings had collapsed.

”I heard the vents ruffling and then started to feel the building shake and a couple of bits of the ceiling fell,” Richard Morgan-Sanjurjo, a 30-year-old business consultant who lives in Chengdu, said.

”I ran so fast. I thought the building was going to come down on my head,” he said.

United States President George Bush expressed his condolences and said the US ”stands ready to help”, and Japan said it was ready to provide as much relief aid as possible.

The quake damaged two chemical plants in Shifeng, about 50km from the epicentre, burying hundreds of people and forcing more than 6 000 others living nearby to be evacuated, Xinhua said.

It earlier reported up to 900 students were buried when a high school collapsed in Dujiangyan, north-west of the provincial capital, Chengdu. At least 50 bodies were recovered as frantic parents looked on.

A local official in the city said ”rows of houses” had crumbled, while two primary schools were demolished in the sprawling metropolis of Chongqing.

Olympic venues

President Hu Jintao urged an ”all-out” effort to rescue victims. Military troops were ordered to help with the disaster-relief work.

All trains to and from Chengdu were ordered to stop, the city’s airport was shut down and planes diverted for engineers to assess the runways, and cellphone and internet communications were disrupted.

An Olympic spokesperson said none of the 31 venues for the Beijing Olympics in the capital and other host cities had been damaged.

”They are earthquake-proof to a high degree and no damage was done,” said Sun Weide, deputy director of the Olympic media and communications office.

The quake struck 93km from Chengdu, a city of more than 12-million people, and about 260km from Chongqing and its 30-million people.

The State Seismological Bureau located its epicentre in Wenchuan County, a mountainous region home to the Wolong Nature Reserve, China’s leading research and breeding base for endangered giant pandas.

Both the Chinese seismological bureau and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), which use different scales, measured the quake at 7,8.

It struck shortly before 6.30am GMT at a shallow depth of just 10km, the USGS said.

Xinhua quoted an official saying the landmark Three Gorges Dam in Sichuan province had not been affected.

However, buildings shook in Beijing and Shanghai, residents reported, with many people evacuating tower blocks and rushing onto the street.

The quake was felt in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, where buildings swayed for half a minute, and in the southern Chinese territory of Hong Kong.

In Hanoi, residents said some high buildings shook for about five minutes but there were no reports of damage.

One of the biggest quakes ever recorded was in China in 1976, which killed 242 000 people. — AFP