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China Says Massive Quake has Killed Thousands

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updated 10:53 a.m. ET, Mon., May. 12, 2008

CHONGQING, China - A massive earthquake struck central China on Monday, killing more than 7,000 people in one province alone and trapping nearly 900 students under the rubble of their school, raising fears the overall death toll could increase sharply.

XINHUA via AFP - Getty Images
Rescuers search the rubble of the collapsed Juyuan middle school on Monday.

The official Xinhua News Agency said 80 percent of the buildings had collapsed in Beichuan county and that another 10,000 people were believed hurt there.

The epicenter of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake was in Sichuan, striking 57 miles northwest of the provincial capital of Chengdu. It hit in the middle of the afternoon — when classes and offices were full.

Xinhua, citing a provincial official, said the quake killed 7,651 people in Sichuan alone.

Thousands of soldiers and police have been dispatched to the epicenter in Wenchuan county, about 60 miles away from Beichuan, which has a population of 160,000.

In another area close to the epicenter, workers were struggling to dig out an estimated 900 students trapped when the Juyuan Middle School building collapsed. Photographs showed heavy cranes trying to move rubble from the ruined structure.

Xinhua said that rescuers had recovered at least 50 bodies from the debris of the school building. It did not say if any students had been pulled out alive. Xinhua said an unknown number of students were also reported buried after buildings collapsed at five other schools in Deyang city in Sichuan.

The earthquake comes fewer than three months before the start of the Beijing Summer Olympics, which China hopes to use to showcase its rise in the world.

‘Crying out for help’

Xinhua said its reporters in Juyuan township about 60 miles from the epicenter in Wenchuan saw buried teenagers struggling to break loose from underneath the rubble of the three-story school "while others were crying out for help."

Two girls were quoted by Xinhua as saying they escaped because they had “run faster than others.”

Photos posted on the Internet and found on the Chinese search engine Baidu showed arms and a torso sticking out of the rubble of the school as dozens of people worked to free them, using small mechanical winches or their hands to move concrete slabs.

Another photo from Wenchuan showed what appeared to have been a six-story building flattened, ripped away from taller buildings of gray concrete.


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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, state television reported.

Rain was also predicted for the disaster area.

The quake struck 57 miles northwest of Chengdu at 2:28 p.m. (0628 GMT), the U.S. Geological Survey said on its Web site. It was centered about 6 miles below the surface. A series of smaller aftershocks followed.

Communications go down

Calls into the city did not go through as panicked residents quickly overloaded the telephone system.

"In Chengdu, mobile telecommunication switches have experienced jams and thousands of servers were out of service," said Sha Yuejia, deputy chief executive officer of China Mobile.

Although it was difficult to telephone Chengdu, an Israeli student, Ronen Medzini, sent a text message to The Associated Press saying there were power and water outages there.

"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.

Olympic venues survive unscathed

The earthquake also rattled buildings in Beijing 930 miles to the north. The Chinese capital is expected to be full of hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors when the Olympics start on Aug. 8.

Many Beijing office towers were evacuated, including the building housing the media offices for the organizers of the Olympics, which start in August. None of the Olympic venues were damaged.

Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Chengdu just before sunset to oversee rescue work.

"The Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council (Cabinet) 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 told reporters on the way.

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 a hotel employee surnamed Zhu.

Patients at the Fuyang People's No. 1 Hospital were evacuated.

An hour after the quake, a half-dozen patients in blue-striped pajamas stood outside the hospital. One was laying on a hospital bed in the parking lot.

Closer to the epicenter in Chongqing, Lai Dequn was napping while her mother watched TV on the 19th floor of a hotel. "I suddenly felt the bed shaking and then realized it must be an earthquake," said the 42-year-old Lai. "So I just put on slippers and helped my mother down to the ground floor."

In Shanghai, skyscrapers swayed and most office occupants went rushing into the streets. The quake was also felt as far away as Thailand, Vietnam and Pakistan.

Major event

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.

CHECK OUT THE USGS LiveInternet Seismic Server

China's deadliest earthquake in modern history struck the northeastern city of Tangshan on July 28, 1976, killing 240,000 people.