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Earthquake Rocks Western China, Killing Thousands

May 12, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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A earthquake devastated southwestern China on Monday, killing as many as 10,000 people and trapping hundreds of others under flattened buildings, state media reported. After an update on the impact of the quake, Time Magazine's Beijing correspondent, Austin Ramzy, discusses details and rescue efforts.

GWEN IFILL: The killer quake in China. We start with a report narrated by Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN RUGMAN, ITV News Correspondent: It was the day the Earth shook. A Chinese student reduced to cowering beneath his desk, while books and other objects are sent flying. This is over 50 miles from the epicenter.

The quake hit 7.8 on the Richter scale, and the violent shaking here lasts for a full three minutes.

Official Chinese media is tonight reporting that over 8,000 people have been killed in Sichuan province, with some 10,000 feared injured in just one county alone.

Thousands are thought to be trapped under rubble. A collapsed chemical plant is reported to have buried hundreds. Phone lines have been cut, and many roads are proving impossible to the emergency services.

In the regional capital, Chengdu, the sick were evacuated from hospital to the safety of the streets, though the epicenter was further north in a rural mountainous area, which is home to Tibetans, as well as Chinese.

This is one of eight schools reported to have collapsed. It’s feared that hundreds of teenagers were trapped inside. Four so far have been reported dead.

Cranes reached the scene, as anxious parents looked on, waiting for news, though a landslide prevented Chinese troops from reaching the disaster zone.

The quake struck in the early afternoon. Its tremors were felt 1,000 miles away in Beijing, the city preparing for the Olympics three months from now.

MAN: What is it?

MAN: It’s got to be an earthquake.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Thousands were evacuated, filling one of the capital’s main avenues.

And in a far cry from neighboring Burma, Beijing was swift to dispatch search-and-rescue teams to the worst-affected areas of Sichuan. A government already grappling with Tibetan unrest had apparently determined not to be caught off-guard.

EMERGENCY AID WORKER (through translator): The most difficult part is performing emergency aid on the spot. Within a short time, we have to calm down those who have been most severely hurt and then escort them to hospital.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: And Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, a geologist by training, has arrived in the earthquake region to take command.

WEN JIABAO, Premier, China (through translator): The Central Committee of the Communist Party and the State Council require all officials to stand in the front line of earthquake relief, to lead our people in their action. We should fight bravely and spare no sacrifice. We definitely will overcome this very serious disaster.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: In Chengdu city, at least 45 were reported killed, amid an urgent exodus outdoors.

Factories were reported to have fallen on top of their occupants after what is believe to be the worst earthquake in China for over 30 years, with over 300 aftershocks, though China’s massive Three Gorges Dam, a few hundred miles east, is reported to be safe.

There were some lucky escapes: these women and their babies evacuated from a maternity hospital. This mother was wheeled out of the operating theater minutes after giving birth.

Quake felt across China

GWEN IFILL: Earlier this evening, I spoke with Time Magazine's Beijing correspondent, Austin Ramzy.

Austin Ramzy, welcome. What is the latest you can tell us about what they are now saying is a 7.9 on the Richter scale quake?

AUSTIN RAMZY, Time Magazine: Well, the latest death toll figure is about 8,500, but it's less than a day since this quake hit. So it's expected that that number will go up.

GWEN IFILL: Now, how do you know that? Is that based on the population in that region or just because people are expecting the worst because of the magnitude of the earthquake?

AUSTIN RAMZY: Well, it's because of the magnitude of the earthquake and also the fact that much of the area that was hit is very rural and there hasn't been much heard from these areas. So it's seen as likely that that number will climb.

GWEN IFILL: Tell us some more about Sichuan province. We have heard that a lot of it is rural, but also that there are big population centers?

AUSTIN RAMZY: Yes, yes, there are big population centers, including Chengdu, which is about 60 miles from the epicenter. It apparently has avoided serious damage.

The quake hit more to the west of Chengdu in a mountainous region. That's a slightly poorer area. Housing there is probably not as well-constructed, buildings not as well-constructed. So it's likely that there will be more destruction in that area.

GWEN IFILL: You're in Beijing, which is about 1,000 miles away from the epicenter of the quake. Did you actually feel it?

AUSTIN RAMZY: Yes, I did. I felt it -- the pictures in my office began to slide against the wall. And I went outside. And a lot of people in the compound where I work had all gathered out on the street. So, yes, we did feel the quake.

GWEN IFILL: Did you immediately know that it was an earthquake?

AUSTIN RAMZY: Yes, I did. I had been through an earthquake in Seattle before, so I knew it was an earthquake. It didn't seem very big, but then I went to a coffee shop nearby and was talking with someone who worked there who said that he had just gotten a call from his father who had experienced the earthquake in Xi'an, which is several hundred miles away. And at that point, I knew that it was pretty serious.

Government response to the disaster

GWEN IFILL: How has government response been?

AUSTIN RAMZY: The government response has been pretty strong. The legitimacy of this government is very much wrapped up in the ability to respond to these sort of events within hours of the quake.

Premiere Wen Jiabao was on a plane flying to the affected region. President Hu Jintao gave a message and called for an all-out rescue effort.

So, from the top levels of government, the response has been very active.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to compare this to past episodes like this in China, other earthquakes, other natural disasters?

AUSTIN RAMZY: The only real comparison would be, in recent years, would be the 1976 earthquake that hit Tangshan, which is a city about 100 miles from Beijing. That quake killed anywhere from 200,000 to 600,000 people. The actual number is not known.

At that time, the government was able to restrict information so that people outside of the affected area knew little about what happened. And even today, the death toll still isn't really known.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things that we follow very closely involving China, of course, is the readiness for the Olympics. You see daily coverage. Is there any concern on the ground that this will affect that?

AUSTIN RAMZY: I don't think so. Thus far, all the Olympic sites have apparently not been affected. So it seems like, at this point, there aren't any signs that it will affect the games.

GWEN IFILL: The U.S., as well, has offered, if it's requested, some sort of aid to China. Has there been any response to that offer? Is it likely that they'll be taken up on it?

AUSTIN RAMZY: Not that I know of. It's still early going.

Certainly, there's an amount of pride on the Chinese part of them being able to respond on their own. But if the death toll does climb, if things get serious, it's entirely possible that the Chinese government would begin to accept outside aid.

GWEN IFILL: Austin Ramzy of Time Magazine, thank you very much.

AUSTIN RAMZY: My pleasure.

GWEN IFILL: After I spoke with Austin Ramzy this afternoon, the Chinese government updated its casualty figures to nearly 10,000 dead.