(YA’AN, China) — Residents huddled outdoors Saturday night in a town near the epicenter of a powerful earthquake that struck the steep hills of China’s southwestern Sichuan province, leaving at least 156 people dead and more than 5,500 injured.
Saturday morning’s earthquake triggered landslides and disrupted phone and power connections in mountainous Lushan county five years after a devastating quake wreaked widespread damage across the region. The village of Longmen was hit particularly hard, with authorities saying nearly all the buildings there had been destroyed in a frightening minute-long shaking by the quake.
In nearby Ya’an town, where aftershocks could be felt nearly 20 hours after the quake, residents sat in groups outside convenience stores watching the news on television sets. Fourteen-year-old Wang Xing sat with her family on chairs by the roadside in the cool night air, a large blanket on her lap.
Wang and her relatives said they planned to spend the night in their cars. “We don’t feel safe sleeping at home tonight,” said Wang, a student. She said the quake left tears on the walls of her family’s house. “It was very scary when it happened. I ran out of my bed and out of the house. I didn’t even have my shoes on.”
Along the main roads leading to the worst-hit county of Lushan, ambulances, fire engines and military trucks piled high with supplies waited in long lines, some turning back to try other routes when roads were impassable.
Rescuers turned the square outside the Lushan County Hospital into a triage center, where medical personnel bandaged bleeding victims, according to footage on China Central Television. Rescuers dynamited boulders that had fallen across roads to reach Longmen and other damaged areas lying farther up the mountain valleys, state media reported.
The China Earthquake Administration said at least 156 people had died, including 96 in Lushan. In the jurisdiction of Ya’an, which administers Lushan, 19 people were reported missing and more than 5,500 people were injured, the administration said.
The quake — measured by the earthquake administration at magnitude-7.0 and by the U.S. Geological Survey at 6.6 — struck the steep hills of Lushan county shortly after 8 a.m., when many people were at home, sleeping or having breakfast. People in their underwear and wrapped in blankets ran into the streets of Ya’an and even the provincial capital of Chengdu, 115 kilometers (70 miles) east of Lushan, according to photos, video and accounts posted online.
The quake’s shallow depth, less than 13 kilometers (8 miles), likely magnified the impact.
Chengdu’s airport shut down for about an hour before reopening, though many flights were canceled or delayed, and its railway station halted dozens of scheduled trains, state media said.
Lushan reported the most deaths, but there was concern that casualties in neighboring Baoxing county might have been under-reported because of inaccessibility after roads were blocked and power and phone services cut off.
As the region went into the first night after the quake, rain started to fall, slowing rescue work. Forecasts called for more rain in the next several days, and the China Meteorological Administration warned of possible landslides and other geological disasters.
Tens of thousands of people moved into tents or cars, unable to return home or too afraid to go back as aftershocks continued to jolt the region.
Lushan, where the quake struck, lies where the fertile Sichuan plain meets foothills that eventually rise to the Tibetan plateau and sits atop the Longmenshan fault. It was along that fault line that a devastating magnitude-7.9 quake struck on May 12, 2008, leaving more than 90,000 people dead or missing and presumed dead in one of the worst natural disasters to strike China in recent decades.
“It was just like May 12,” Liu Xi, a writer in Ya’an city, who was jolted awake by Saturday’s quake, said via a private message on his account on Sina Corporation’s Twitter-like Weibo service. “All the home decorations fell at once, and the old house cracked.”
The official Xinhua News Agency said the well-known Bifengxia panda preserve, which is near Lushan, was not affected by the quake. Dozens of pandas were moved to Bifengxia from another preserve, Wolong, after its habitat was wrecked by the 2008 quake.
As in most natural disasters, the government mobilized thousands of soldiers and others — 7,000 people by Saturday afternoon — sending excavators and other heavy machinery as well as tents, blankets and other emergency supplies. Two soldiers died after the vehicle that they and more than a dozen others were in slipped off the road and rolled down a cliff, state media reported.
Premier Li Keqiang flew to Ya’an to direct rescue efforts, and he and President Xi Jinping ordered officials and rescuers to make saving people the top priority, Xinhua said.
The Chinese Red Cross said it had deployed relief teams with supplies of food, water, medicine and rescue equipment to the disaster areas.
With roads blocked for several hours after the quake, the military surveyed the disaster area by air. Aerial photos released by the military and shown on state television showed individual houses in ruins in Lushan and outlying villages flattened into rubble. The roofs of some taller buildings appeared to have slipped off, exposing the floors beneath them.
A person whose posts to the micro-blogging account “Qingyi Riverside” on Weibo carried a locator geotag for Lushan said many buildings collapsed and that people could spot helicopters hovering above.
The earthquake administration said there had been at least 712 aftershocks, including two of magnitude-5.0 or higher.
“It’s too dangerous,” said a person with the Weibo account Chengduxinglin and with a Lushan geotag. “Even the aftershocks are scary.”
While rescuers and state media rushed to the disaster scene, China’s active social media users filled the information gap. They posted photos of people fleeing to streets for safety and of buildings flattened by the quake. They shared information on the availability of phone services, apparently through data services.
Associated Press writer Didi Tang contributed to this report from Beijing.