Over 7,600 Feared Dead in Sichuan Province After Strong Quake

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May 12 – Thousands are feared dead in the aftermath of a massive earthquake that struck Southwestern China’s Sichuan province on Monday. The 7.8 magnitude quake struck Wenchuan county at 2:28 p.m., leveling buildings and trapping those inside. Xinhua reported that 3,000 to 5,000 people were feared dead in Beichuan county near the quake’s epicenter. Roughly 80 percent of buildings in the county had been detroyed according to disaster relief officials. Current estimates are placing the dead at over 7,600 with as many as 10,000 injured, though that figure is expected to rise throughout the night as relief efforts intensify.

Earlier in the day, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs said that the earthquake killed at least 107 people in the provincial capital of Chengdu, neighboring Chongqing, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. Up to 900 teenagers were feared buried when their high school buildings in suburban Chengdu collapsed. By the evening, at least 50 bodies have been pulled from the rubble.

“Some buried teenagers were struggling to break loose from underneath the ruins while others were crying out for help,” Xinhua reported.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao cut an inspection trip to Henan province short and flew to Chengdu to oversee the government’s relief efforts. More than 5,000 soldiers and 3,000 police have also been rushed to Wenchuan and the surrounding area carry out rescue efforts.

“I will be in charge of relief work headquarters that has been set up with eight departments covering rescue work, earthquake forecasting and monitoring and other aspects,” Wen said.

The earthquake also disrupted air traffic control in western China, and controllers were forced to temporarily evacuate the control tower at Beijing International airport when it began to sway. The controllers were able to return to duty in Beijing but flights between Asia and Europe that crossed Southwestern China were being canceled or delayed. Local reports from Chengdu indicate that the airport has been closed to civilian traffic as the military had begun flying in supplies to the area.

China sits above several fault lines and has endured some terrible earthquakes. In 1972, 240,000 people were killed when a 7.8 magnitude quake struck the city of Tangshan, located about 112 kilometers from Beijing.

The Wenchuan quake was felt as far away as Thailand and in the eastern cities of Beijing and Shanghai, workers evacuated office towers during the event. While there were no reported injuries in these cities, rumors swirled throughout the day about a second, smaller magnitude earthquake striking the Tongzhou district of Beijing at 2:35. China’s state seismological administration has since refuted this rumor, stating that Beijing was only experiencing the delayed shock of the initial Wenchuan quake. A spokesperson for the administration on state television also urged residents to remain calm, stressing that no impending earthquake is expected to strike the capital city in the near future.