TENS of thousands of people were feared dead last night in a huge earthquake that shattered central China.
An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people were killed in Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County alone, state media said.
As many as 10,000 in Beichuan were feared injured and 80% of the buildings there had been destroyed, the official state Xinhua news agency said.
There had been more than 300 aftershocks, state television said.
Beichuan’s population is 161,000, meaning about one in 10 residents were killed or injured. The county is a part of Mianyang city, and about 160km from the provincial capital, Chengdu.
Shockwaves from the 7.8 magnitude quake, centred in the Sichuan province, were felt as far away as Vietnam and Thailand.
The official death toll from the region of small cities and towns was put at 8,533 but, with reports coming in of collapsed hospitals, schools, factories and office blocks, it was expected to climb much higher.
The government admitted that the quake had caused deaths in three other provinces and the mega-city of Chongqing.
In Juyuan town in Dujiangyan city, just south of the epicentre, the middle school collapsed, burying 900 pupils. No figures were given for the number who died.
Photos posted on the internet showed arms and a torso sticking out of the rubble of the school as dozens of people worked to free them, using small winches or their hands to move concrete slabs. Xinhua news agency said 50 bodies had been pulled from the debris, but did not say if they were alive.
Another photo from Wenchuan, closest to the epicentre, showed what appeared to have been a six-storey building flattened, ripped away from taller buildings of grey concrete. Xinhua reported students were also buried under five other toppled schools in Deyang city.
Beijing mobilised more than 8,000 soldiers and police to help rescuers in Sichuan and put the province on the second-highest level of emergency footing.
Premier Wen Jiabao called the quake “a major geological disaster” and flew into the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, a city of 10 million people, to oversee the rescue and relief operations.
The quake was one of the deadliest in three decades and posed a challenge to a government already grappling with discontent over high inflation and a widespread uprising among Tibetans in western China while trying to prepare for the Beijing Olympics this August.
Stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen see-sawed, dropping on inflation worries and then rising and tapering off over worries about the quake’s economic impact.
Much of the affected area has been closed to foreign media, compounding the difficulties of getting information. There were power and water outages there.
The earthquake hit yesterday about 2.30pm and lasted about three minutes. It rattled buildings in Beijing, 1,500km to the north, causing office towers to be evacuated.
People ran screaming into the streets in other cities, where many residents said they had never felt an earthquake.
Hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors are expected for the Olympics, which start on August 8, but venues for the games were undamaged.
Li Jiulin, a top engineer on the 91,000-seat national stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest and the jewel of the Olympics, was conducting an inspection at the venue when the quake occurred.
He told reporters the building was designed to withstand a 8.0 quake.
“The Olympic venues were not affected by the earthquake,” said a spokesman for the Beijing organising committee. “We considered earthquakes when building those venues.”
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake is considered a major event, capable of causing widespread damage and injuries in populated areas.
“The road started swaying as I was driving. Rocks fell from the mountains, with dust darkening the sky over the valley,” a driver for Sichuan’s seismological bureau was quoted by Xinhua as saying, as he was driving near the epicentre.
“I heard the vents ruffling and then started to feel the building shake and a couple of bits of the ceiling fell,” said Richard Morgan-Sanjurjo, a 30-year-old business consultant who lives in Chengdu.
“I ran so fast. I thought the building was going to come down on my head,” he said.
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