China on Wednesday evacuated nearly 60,000 people in its mountainous southwest after a strong earthquake killed at least 19 people, rattling a region where memories of a 2008 seismic disaster remain fresh.
The 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan province late on Tuesday, tearing cracks in mountain highways, triggering landslides, damaging buildings and sending panicked residents and tourists fleeing into the open.
The provincial government said Wednesday afternoon that most of the tourists — many stranded at a popular national park near the epicentre — have been evacuated after spending a nervous night out in the open as more than 1,000 aftershocks rippled across the region.
Locals will also be moved to safer ground, according to the authorities.
The area’s difficult geography — and travel restrictions quickly imposed by authorities — have so far prevented a clear picture of the scale of the disaster from emerging, but there were no reports of catastrophic damage or large-scale casualties by Wednesday afternoon.
The quake killed at least 19 people and injured at least 247, 40 of them seriously, according to the local government of Aba prefecture where the epicentre was located.
Two foreign nationals, a French man and a Canadian woman, are among the injured.
Images on social media or in state news outlets showed cars and buses tossed into ravines or crushed by giant boulders jolted loose from surrounding hills, and rescue personnel combing through rubble for any victims.
Aerial footage broadcast by state-run Xinhua news agency showed picturesque green-forested mountains now scarred by huge gouges from giant landslides that sent clouds of dust into the air.
– ‘We just ran’ –
The quake’s epicentre was near Jiuzhaigou, a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site famed for its karst rock formations, waterfalls and lakes.
Xinhua said at least five of the deaths occurred there, and that more than 30,000 people had been evacuated from Jiuzhaigou alone.
“Nearly all the tourists are being evacuated,” a Jiuzhaigou tour company worker who gave only her surname, Yan, told AFP by phone.
“We slept overnight in tour buses and have been staying in the open ground. Landslides are pretty bad, rocks keep falling down.”
China’s official earthquake monitoring agency said more than 1,000 aftershocks had been detected, the most powerful reaching magnitude 4.8 on Wednesday morning.
More than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) to the northwest, a 6.3-magnitude tremor shook the far-western border region of Xinjiang on Wednesday morning, according to the US Geological Survey.
The Xinjiang quake, which was followed by aftershocks of 5.2 and 5.3 magnitude, injured 32 people and damaged more than 1,000 homes, Xinhua said.
– ‘All-out efforts’ –
President Xi Jinping called for “all-out efforts to rapidly organise relief work and rescue the injured” in the Sichuan quake.
Hundreds of soldiers and rescue personnel had been deployed to the Jiuzhaigou area, along with hundreds of vehicles, and dozens of sniffer dogs and devices used to detect life underneath rubble.
A stream of empty tour buses bearing the sign “Emergency Rescue Vehicle” made their way across the highway toward the disaster zone Wednesday afternoon.
The quake struck at a shallow depth of 10 kilometres, the USGS said, and was reportedly felt hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre. Shallow quakes tend to cause more surface damage.
It evoked memories of a massive 8.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated wide areas of the same region in 2008, leaving 87,000 people dead or missing in China’s worst seismic disaster in a generation.
“I was also in Jiuzhaigou in 2008 during the last big quake, so I knew what it was. This felt even stronger,” local restaurant owner Tang Sesheng told AFP by phone.
“People didn’t dare grab anything like money or clothes — we just all ran outside right away.”
Several people contacted by AFP reported seeing some structures collapse. Others, speaking from the road amid an exodus on traffic-choked mountain highways, reported cars being hit by persistent rockfalls in the quake’s aftermath.
The 2008 quake set off deadly landslides in the region, obliterating towns and damming rivers — creating menacing “quake lakes” that forced the evacuation of thousands downstream as the army worked to clear the blockages.
The Red Cross Society of China said it was sending emergency specialists and volunteers, while Save the Children was also mobilising teams.
“Given the frequent landslides in the rainy season and potential massive secondary disaster following the big earthquake, Save the Children is deeply concerned about the safety of children and women in the affected areas,” said the charity’s operations director in China, Zhang Hongxia.