Rescuers Rush to Aid Survivors of China Quake; at Least 400 Dead

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Closeup map of China's Qinghai province, locating the epicentre of the 6.9 magnitude earthquake. Rescuers dug with their bare hands through the rubble of a devastating quake which hit a remote area of China, killing 400 people and injuring thousands as it toppled mud-and-wood houses and school buildings. (AFP/Graphic)
Chinese rescue workers search through the rubble of collapsed buildings following a strong earthquake in Qinghai province. Rescuers dug with their bare hands through the rubble of a devastating quake which hit a remote area of China, killing 400 people and injuring thousands as it toppled mud-and-wood houses and school buildings. (AFP/CCTV/Cctv)
In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, an injured woman is rescued after a quake in Yushu County, northwest China's Qinghai Province, Wednesday, April 14, 2010. A series of strong earthquakes struck a mountainous Tibetan area of western China on Wednesday, killing hundreds of people and injuring more than 10,000 as houses made of mud and wood collapsed, officials said. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Ren Xiaogang)

APRIL 14, 2010

The Wall Street Journal

SHANGHAI—Rescuers used shovels, pry bars and their bare hands to dig through the rubble of collapsed homes and schools as they raced to find survivors of a severe earthquake that authorities said killed about 400 people and injured roughly 10,000 in a remote, predominantly Tibetan community in western China.

The quake hit shortly before 8 a.m. Wednesday, jolting mountainous Yushu prefecture, part of the Chinese province of Qinghai on the Tibetan plateau, and flattening most of the town of Jiegu, one of the area's main population centers. About 97% of the people in Yushu are ethnically Tibetan. Many earn their living raising yaks, sheep and horses.

As darkness fell and temperatures dipped below freezing in Jiegu, hundreds of soldiers, troops from the paramilitary People's Armed Police and other emergency workers searched the wreckage looking for signs of life. Injured townspeople were being treated at improvised medical centers in the town's central square and at a horse-racing track, officials said.

"We are short of equipment," said Guoyang Zhaxi, a 42-year-old resident helping to free survivors. "So the speed of the rescue efforts is very slow." He said nearly all houses in the town—many of which used traditional wood-and-earth construction—had been destroyed. "We need to hurry up or the people who are buried will have no hope," he said.

Chinese seismologists said the quake had a magnitude of 7.1. The U.S. Geologic Survey said the magnitude was 6.9. A series of aftershocks continued throughout the day. Specialized search and rescue teams as well as hundreds of soldiers were being sent to Yushu from elsewhere in China to assist in the hunt for survivors.

Rescuers said their first priority was schools, where there could be large concentrations of casualties. Zhuohuaxia, a spokesman for Yushu prefecture, told the official Xinhua news agency that "many students are buried." Xinhua reported that at least 30 people were trapped when a dormitory building at the Yushu Ethnic Normal School collapsed.

Wednesday's quake in Qinghai also toppled dormitories and other buildings of the Yushu Primary School, where five students were killed, a teacher at the school told Xinhua. "Some pupils ran out of the dorms alive, and those who had not escaped in time were buried," said the teacher, identified only by the surname Chang.

One of the most politically sensitive legacies of the massive 2008 earthquake that devastated large parts of southwestern China's Sichuan province was disputes between parents and the government over the deaths of thousands of students killed when their schools collapsed on them.

Officials said a year ago that 5,335 students were among the 86,633 dead and missing from the 2008 quake. If accurate, that figure would mean school children didn't suffer disproportionately in the disaster, despite evidence of shoddy school construction that drew the ire of grieving parents. The government took stern measures to silence protests.

Tibet activist groups say that Yushu prefecture and Jiegu town were the scenes of protest activities by Tibetan students and others in 2008, when a wave of unrest swept through Tibetan areas of China. In March that year, bloody riots erupted in Lhasa, and widespread demonstrations by Tibetans led to a crackdown by security forces.

Many Tibetans chafe at what they say are government restrictions on their civil liberties and religious practices, and complain that they have missed out on the country's economic boom. The rural per capita net income in Yushu is about $340 a year, less than half the national average.

Ethnic Tibetan residents of Yushu reached by phone Wednesday said relations between them and China's majority Han Chinese, and between locals and the government, weren't strained. Residents said Tibetans and soldiers and armed police from local garrisons worked side-by-side to save lives.

Guoyang Zhaxi said he and employees of his trading and real-estate company had pulled 30 people from the rubble alive, four of whom, including an infant, later died, he said. He said soldiers and police labored to move heavy steel-reinforced concrete slabs to reach survivors trapped below.

A soldier surnamed Li, interviewed by China National Radio, said many people remained trapped in fallen buildings and could be heard calling for help. Local officials said they needed heavy excavating equipment to reach more victims and medical supplies to treat the injured.

Survivors pitched tents and prepared to sleep outside. Relief officials said they would be bringing in thousands of tents, as well as quilts and warm clothes. Temperatures are expected to fall well below freezing overnight. Meteorologists said there was a chance of snow in the area on Friday.

-- Kersten Zhang and Sue Feng in Beijing and Bai Lin in Shanghai contributed to this article.


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