Thousands of troops were called in to central China after a massive earthquake rocked the region today bringing fears of a huge death toll.
Early reports said it killed at least 100 people and buried nearly 900 children in their school buildings. The numbers of deaths are expected to rise sharply.
The 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck in the middle of the afternoon, when classes and office towers were full, 57 miles north-west of the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu.
The official state Xinhua News Agency said the dead had been killed in Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces and in the Chongqing district. It said many had died in collapsed buildings but did not give details.
More than 5,000 soldiers and police have been rushed into Sichuan to help in the disaster relief.
The airport in Sichuan’s provincial capital, Chengdu, was closed and roads were clogged with traffic after the earthquake
The quake struck at 2.28 pm (07.28 Irish time), the US Geological Survey said, followed by a series of smaller aftershocks.
An Israeli student in Juyuan, Ronen Medzini said power and water supplies had been cut.
“Traffic jams, no running water, power outs, everyone sitting in the streets, patients evacuated from hospitals sitting outside and waiting,” he said.
Xinhua said an underground water pipe ruptured near the city’s southern railway station, flooding a main thoroughfare. Reporters saw buildings with cracks in their walls but no collapses, Xinhua said.
State television broadcast tips for anyone trapped in the earthquake. “If you’re buried, keep calm and conserve your energy. Seek water and food, and wait patiently for rescue,” CCTV said.
The earthquake also rattled buildings in Beijing 930 miles to the north.
Many Beijing office towers were evacuated, including the building housing the media offices for the organisers of the Olympics, which start in August.
Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Chengdu just before sunset to oversee rescue work.
“The Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council have asked officials at all levels to be at the front line of the fighting the earthquake and lead the people in their rescue work,” he said.
People ran screaming into the streets in other cities, where many residents said they had never been in an earthquake. In Fuyang, 660 miles to the east in Anhui province, chandeliers in the lobby of the Buckingham Palace Hotel swayed. “We’ve never felt anything like this our whole lives,” said one employee.
Patients at the town’s hospital were evacuated. An hour after the quake, a half-dozen patients in blue-striped pyjamas stood outside the hospital. One was laying on a hospital bed in the parking lot.
In Shanghai, skyscrapers swayed and most office workers ran into the streets. The quake was also felt as far away as Thailand, Vietnam and Pakistan.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake is considered a major event, capable of causing widespread damage and injuries in populated areas.
The last serious earthquake in China was in 2003, when a 6.8-magnitude quake killed 268 people in Bachu county in the west of Xinjiang.
China’s deadliest earthquake in modern history struck the north-eastern city of Tangshan on July 28, 1976, killing 240,000 people.