Death Toll in China’s 7.9 Earthquake Nears 9,000

An estimated 80 percent of the buildings in Beichuan county
were destroyed, local governments claimed, including schools, factories and

Efforts to rescue trapped schoolchildren who were in class
as the earthquake hit continued, but attempts were hampered as night fell. In
the city of Dujiangyan,
900 students were buried in a three-story primary school after it collapsed. A
hospital in the same city also collapsed.

Xinhua said 80 percent of the buildings had collapsed in Sichuan province’s
Beichuan county after the quake, raising fears that the overall death toll
could increase sharply.

According the U.S. Geological Survey, the epicenter of the quake
was about 60 miles northwest of Chengdu, a city
of millions that is the capital of Sichuan
province. It struck during the afternoon when many people were inside at work
or school.

A magnitude 7.9 earthquake is considered a major event,
capable of causing widespread damage and injuries in populated areas.

The quake sent thousands of people rushing out of buildings
and into the streets hundreds of miles away in Beijing
and Shanghai.
The temblor was felt as far away as Pakistan,
Vietnam and Thailand, the
Associated Press reported.

State media said a chemical plant in Shifang city had
cratered, burying hundreds of people and spilling more than 80 tons of toxic
liquid ammonia from the site.

Mianyang city ordered all able-bodied males younger than 50
to take water and tools and walk or drive to Beichuan, where most of the
buildings had collapsed.

Nervous Chengdu
residents spent the night outside or headed to the suburbs. State media citing
the Sichuan
seismology bureau, reported 313 aftershocks.

“We can’t get to sleep. We’re afraid of the earthquake.
We’re afraid of all the shaking,” factory worker Huang Ju, 52, told the
AP. She took her ailing, elderly mother out of the Jinjiang District People’s
Hospital. Outside the hospital, Huang sat in a wheelchair wrapped in blankets
while her mother, who was ill, slept in a hospital bed next to her.

NPR’s All Things Considered host Melissa Block was in Chengdu when the
earthquake hit.

“We were standing on the pavement and the earth was
undulating we could feel it moving up and down under your feet,” she said.
“I was right next to a church and brick and tile had started falling off
the roof of the church. The cross on top was waving widely — it never did fall
down. But everyone came out into the street… Everybody was quite terrified
and had never been through this before. This is not something that happens in Chengdu.”

Block said residents remained outdoors to avoid the damage
from aftershocks and that they were using cell phones to locate their friends
and family.

The telephone system, however, was quickly overloaded.
“In Chengdu,
mobile telecommunication convertors have experienced jams and thousands of
servers were out of service,” said Sha Yuejia, deputy chief executive
officer of China Mobile.

The earthquake also rattled buildings in Beijing, some 930 miles to the north, less
than three months before the Chinese capital was expected to be full of
hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors for the Summer Olympics.

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 Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing organizing committee.

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 northeastern city of Tangshan
on July 28, 1976, killing 240,000 people.

In 1933, the northwestern margin of the Sichuan Basin
suffered a magnitude 7.5 earthquake that killed more than 9,300 people,
according to the USGS.