The death toll from a powerful earthquake in central China has climbed to nearly 10,000 in the worst-hit province, state news reports said today.
Yesterday’s 7.9-magnitude quake devastated a region of small cities and towns in an area of Sichuan province north of the capital of Chengdu.
The official Xinhua News Agency said about 600 people died in Shifang city, which was the site of a major chemical leak. The report did not say whether people were killed by the quake or the chemical leak.
Xinhua said as many as 2,300 people in the city were still buried under rubble, including more than 900 students.
Landslides have blocked roads into the hardest-hit areas, and rescue workers were heading there on foot.
The mid-afternoon quake emptied office buildings across the country in Beijing, could be felt as far away as Vietnam.
In Chengdu it crashed telephone networks and hours later left parts of the city of 10 million in darkness.
Xinhua said nearly 10,000 people died in central China’s Sichuan province alone and 216 others in three other provinces and the mega-city of Chongqing.
Worst affected were four counties including the quake’s epicentre in Wenchuan, 60 miles north west of Chengdu. Landslides blocked the roads early today, causing the government to order soldiers into the area on foot, state television said, while heavy rains prevented four military helicopters from landing.
Wenchuan’s Communist Party secretary appealed for air drops of tents, food and medicine.
“We also need medical workers to save the injured people here,” Xinhua quoted Wang Bin as telling other officials, who reached him by satellite phone.
Snippets from state media and photos posted on the internet underscored the immense scale of the devastation.
In Juyuan town, south of the epicentre, a three-storey high school collapsed, burying as many as 900 pupils and killing at least 60, Xinhua said. Photos showed people using cranes, mechanical hoists and their hands to remove slabs of concrete and steel.
Xinhua described buried teenagers struggling to break free from the rubble “while others were crying out for help”. Families waited in the rain near the wreckage as rescuers wrote the names of the dead on a blackboard.
Officials at another school in the area said about 300 students were killed when a classroom building collapsed. Rescuers worked through the night to remove debris, some of it stained with blood, trying to recover the bodies.
To the east, in Beichuan county, 80% of the buildings collapsed, and 10,000 people were injured aside from 3,000 to 5,000 dead, Xinhua said. It and other state media said two chemical plants in an industrial zone in Shifang city cratered, burying hundreds of people and spilling more than 80 tons of toxic liquid ammonia from the site.
About 600 people were killed in Shifang, Xinhua said, although it did not say whether they died in the quake or as a result of the chemical spill. As many as 2,300 people were still buried under the rubble, including more than 900 students.
Nearly 20,000 soldiers, police and reservists were sent to the disaster area, with some going on foot because roads were impassable.
Disasters always pose a test to the Communist government, whose mandate rests heavily on maintaining order, delivering economic growth and providing relief in emergencies.
Pressure for a rapid response was particularly intense this year, as the government was already grappling with public discontent over high inflation and a widespread uprising among Tibetans in western China while trying to prepare for the Beijing Olympics this August.
Premier Wen Jiabao, a trained geologist, called the quake “a major geological disaster” and travelled to the disaster area to oversee the rescue and relief operations.
“Hang on a bit longer. The troops are rescuing you,” Wen shouted to people buried under the Traditional Medicine Hospital of Dujiangyan city, on the road to Wenchuan, in comments broadcast by CCTV.
“As long as there was a slightest hope, we should make our effort 100 times and we will never relax,” he said outside the collapsed school in Juyuan.
Expressions of sympathy poured in from the US, among others, and the Czech Republic offered emergency aid.
“I am particularly saddened by the number of students and children affected by this tragedy,” US president George Bush said.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge sent a personally written note of condolences to Chinese president Hu Jintao.
The quake hit a fault where South Asia pushes against the Eurasian land mass, smashing the Sichuan plain into mountains leading to the Tibetan highlands - near communities that held sometimes violent protests against Chinese rule in mid-March.
Wen, after arriving in Chengdu, travelled to Dujiangyan, near the collapsed middle school and appealed for people to rally together.
“This is an especially challenging task,” he said. “In the face of the disaster, what’s most important is calmness, confidence, courage and powerful command.”
The quake was the deadliest since the 1976 quake which killed 240,000 people in the city of Tangshan, near Beijing.