China Hit by 7.9-Magnitude Quake; More Than 8,700 Die

By | May 12, 2008

China was hit by a magnitude-7.9 earthquake, the nation’s strongest in 58 years, killing more than 8,700 people. The temblor in Sichuan province shook buildings in Beijing, more than 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) away.

The quake struck at 2:28 p.m., 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) deep and 90 kilometers west-northwest of the central city of Chengdu, followed by aftershocks including a magnitude-6 quake 15 minutes later, the U.S. Geological Survey said. Chengdu, home to 11 million people, is the capital of Sichuan, site of 40 percent of China’s gas deposits and its largest panda reserve.

“The epicenter of today’s quake was shallow, which means it released more destructive energy,” Zhang Guomin, a researcher at the China Seismology Bureau, told the state-run Xinhua News Agency. “We have to guard against mudslides and collapsing buildings.”

The death toll in the province is at least 8,700, Xinhua said, with as many as 5,000 killed and 10,000 injured in one county, Beichuan. Rescuers recovered at least 50 bodies from the debris of a high school in the city of Dujiangyan, about 100 kilometers from the epicenter, Xinhua said. As many as 900 students were buried in the rubble.

China allocated 200 million yuan ($28.6 million) for disaster relief, Xinhua said.

Older Buildings

The death toll may rise, Deng Changwen, a spokesman for the Sichuan provincial seismological bureau, was quoted as saying by Xinhua. Rescuers battled their way to reach Wenchua County, near the epicenter, using excavators and cranes to remove debris on the roads, Xinhua reported. Four military helicopters heading to the area were forced to return because of heavy rain, the news service said.

“The rescue efforts will be focused on the older parts of the city, where there are older buildings that aren’t well reinforced,” Deng said.

The quake was originally reported as magnitude 7.8 before it was revised by the USGS today.

Five other schools collapsed in the province’s Deyang City, leaving an unknown number of students buried, Xinhua said. Four students were killed and at least 100 were injured when two schools collapsed in Liangping county of Chongqing municipality, adjacent to Sichuan. Chongqing is about 350 kilometers from the epicenter of the temblor.

Buildings in Beijing shook for more than three minutes and traffic stopped. Construction cranes ceased work, while hundreds of people were seen scrambling to get out of buildings including the China World Tower, one of the tallest structures in the Chinese capital.

Felt in Bangkok

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage in the capital. Shaking was felt as far as Hong Kong and Bangkok in Thailand, 1,950 kilometers away.

China is to host the Olympics Games in August at more than 30 venues. The frequency of earthquakes in the Beijing area was taken into account during construction, and none of the venues was damaged, Sun Weide, deputy director for the Olympic media, told Agence France-Presse today.

The quake sparked panic in cities and towns across Sichuan and other central provinces, Xinhua said. No damage was reported at the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, Xinhua said.

The quake damaged more than 2,000 China Mobile Ltd. base stations, Vice President Sha Yuejia said in an interview broadcast on state-run China Central Television.

Trading Halted

The Shanghai Stock Exchange said trading in Sichuan Changhong Electric Co., Chongqing Iron & Steel Co. and 43 other listed companies based in Sichuan province and Chongqing city was suspended until they provide investors with trading updates.

The quake may help fuel increases in corn and soybeans after the disaster threatened to disrupt domestic supplies, analysts said.

“The earthquake in China is going to cause major disruption in transportation,” which could boost demand for U.S. grain and meat imports, said Roy Huckabay, an executive vice president for the Linn Group in Chicago. “Chinese soybean prices soared overnight,” a sign of increased demand for available supplies, Huckabay said.

Chinese carriers including China Eastern Airlines Corp. halted flights to some cities hit by the quake.

Pleas for Calm

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who described the earthquake as a “disaster,” called for calm, according to state media, while President Hu Jintao issued an order for an immediate response from government agencies, according to Xinhua.

Today’s earthquake was the world’s strongest since a 7.9- magnitude temblor struck Indonesia in September, according to the USGS. It was the biggest to hit China since a magnitude-8.6 quake struck Tibet in 1950, killing 1,526 people. China’s deadliest disaster was a 7.5-magnitude quake that killed 250,000 people in northeastern China’s Tangshan in 1976.

The USGS defines an earthquake of magnitude 7 or more as “major,” and one above 8 as “great.”

There are 17 quakes measuring 7 to 7.9 annually worldwide on average, USGS said on its Web site, with five occurring so far this year. On average, there is one temblor annually measuring 8 or more.

“I extend my condolences to those injured and to the families of the victims of today’s earthquake in China’s Sichuan province,” U.S. President George W. Bush said in a statement issued by the White House. “I am particularly saddened by the number of students and children affected by this tragedy. The thoughts and prayers of the American people are with the Chinese people, especially those directly affected. The United States stands ready to help in any way possible.”

Skyscrapers Evacuated

Hundreds of employees were evacuated from skyscrapers in the Lujiazui district of Shanghai, the city’s financial center, where the stock exchange and banks including Citigroup Inc. and HSBC Holdings Plc have offices. No damage was reported.

Sichuan produced about 22 percent of the nation’s natural gas output in 2006, according to China National Petroleum Corp. and BP Plc’s annual energy report. – bl

Leave a Reply