At least 19 people were killed in an earthquake in China’s mountainous southwest region. Tens of thousands of people were being evacuated on Wednesday from the Sichuan region where memories of a 2008 seismic disaster remain fresh.
The 6.5 magnitude quake struck Sichuan late on Tuesday. The tremor created cracks in mountain highways, triggered landslides, damaged buildings and sent panicked residents and tourists fleeing to the open. The mountainous region near a national park is one of the country’s top tourist attractions.
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 epicenter was located.
Most of the deaths and injuries were recorded in Zhangzha township, near to Jiuzhaigou or Jiuzhai Valley, a national park known for spectacular waterfalls and karst formations that attracts visitors from China and overseas.
Thousands of people, many of them tourists at a popular national park near the epicenter, were being evacuated to safety Wednesday after spending a nervous night out in the open as more than 1,000 aftershocks rippled across the region.
The Tuesday night quake knocked out power and phone networks, complicating efforts to locate and evacuate survivors.
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.
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.
President Xi Jinping called for rapid efforts to respond to the disaster, which struck a quake-prone region bordered by Sichuan and Gansu provinces. The area is on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau and home to many Tibetan and other ethnic minority villages.
Among the injured, 40 were listed in serious condition, according to the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture government in Sichuan. At least five of the dead were tourists, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said.
“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 kilometers (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.
Jinping called for “all-out efforts to rapidly organize 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.
The quake struck at a shallow depth of 10 kilometers, the USGS said, and was reportedly felt hundreds of kilometers from the epicenter. 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.