7.0-magnitude quake felt in five provinces; rescue hampered by landslips

At least 157 people were killed and more than 5,700 injured in a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck China’s south-western Sichuan province on Saturday morning. Authorities fear the number of casualties could rise considering the strength of the earthquake, which was felt in at least five surrounding provinces.

The earthquake struck the city of Ya’an, in Lushan county, around 140 kilometres from the bustling provincial capital Chengdu, at 8.02 am local time (5.32 am IST).

The official Xinhua news agency said, citing provincial authorities, that at least 152 people had been confirmed killed and at least 3,000 others injured as of 8.30 pm on Saturday night (6 pm IST), with the number expected to increase as relief work continues to clear rubble from collapsed buildings in Lushan’s towns and cities.

More than 2,000 soldiers have already been dispatched to assist in recovery efforts, military sources told Xinhua. However, landslides had blocked access in several places and two barrier lakes caused by the earthquake were “posing risks for rescue efforts”, officials said.

Reflecting the difficult conditions for rescue and recovery work, one rescue vehicle carrying 17 soldiers fell off a cliff on the way to the quake zone, State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) reported. One soldier died.

The worst-hit areas were thought to be the rural townships of Baoxing, Taiping and Longmen, located in the suburbs of Ya’an. More than 400,000 people were thought to be affected by the earthquake.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who travelled to Lushan from Beijing on Saturday afternoon, called on rescuers to “grasp the first 24 hours after the earthquake, the golden time for saving lives”.

The earthquake struck a part of the province not far from where a devastating 8.0-magnitude earthquake, five years ago, left at least 90,000 people dead or missing. The China Earthquake Administration (CEA) said the quake “originated in the Longmenshan fracture zone”, where 12 earthquakes of 5-magnitude or more have been reported since 1900.

Saturday’s earthquake was "not expected to be as disastrous" as the 2008 earthquake, Pan Huaiwen, director of the China Earthquake Networks Center (CENC), told Xinhua.

The 2008 earthquake reduced entire towns in Sichuan to rubble. The recovery process has been difficult, with the government pouring billions of dollars into reconstruction projects in towns and counties not far from where Saturday’s earthquake struck.

The 2008 earthquake also resulted in the collapse of dozens of newly-built schools, resulting in the deaths of more than 5,000 children. The poor quality of construction of even newly-opened schools brought widespread criticism towards the government and subsequently triggered corruption investigations.

The Ministry of Education said there were no reports of students killed on Saturday, looking to assuage public concerns about whether the tragedy of five years ago would again be repeated.

The city of Ya'an was also badly affected by the 2008 earthquake, and, like surrounding towns and counties, was only beginning to turn the page over the last disaster when Saturday's earthquake struck. Tens of thousands of people were left homeless in Ya'an five years ago, according to Chinese media reports.

The 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the city at 8.02 am local time (5.32 am IST) with an epicenter of 13 km depth, according to Xinhua. The U.S. Geological Survey recorded the magnitude as 6.6, the Associated Press reported, with the 13 km depth seen as shallow enough to magnify the impact.

The impact was powerful enough to rattle buildings in Chengdu, more than 140 km away, and to have been felt in surrounding provinces of Guizhou, Gansu, Shaanxi and Yunnan. A Chengdu resident told Xinhua his building shook for 20 seconds, and he saw “tiles fall off nearby buildings”. Xinhua said at least four major aftershocks were felt, the largest recorded as having a 5.3 magnitude.

Photographs showed collapsed buildings and entire neighbourhoods in Ya'an reduced to rubble. Among the despair, officials had one story of hope: two hours after the earthquake, a baby was born, in perfectly healthy condition, in an ambulance in Ya’an after rescue workers had taken the mother to safety.

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