Surviving China's Latest Earthquake, but Afraid to Go Home

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 YUXI, China -- Many residents of this tiny village in the mountainous region of southwest China spent Saturday night in tents and makeshift shelters, too scared to sleep in their flimsy homes after an earthquake killed 160 people early that morning.

 Roofs buckled, walls tumbled and windows broke after the earthquake shook houses and sent boulders tumbling down mountain sides onto the narrow road that leads into this valley of Lushan County near the epicenter of the earthquake, which Chinese authorities said had a preliminary magnitude of 7.

The aftermath was not nearly as serious as the 7.9-magnitude earthquake in 2008 that left more than 70,000 people dead in the Wenchuan area. But villagers who work in Chengdu, about 100 miles away, streamed back home Sunday morning, many on foot, the lucky ones on motorbikes, to check on their homes.

Song Yuanqing, 43, a construction worker, arrived back after a 22-hour trip to find his roof and the walls unstable. "We would like to do something, but we can't do anything," Mr. Song said as he sat with neighbors around an outdoor fire built by the village leader in his backyard. Some people had slept under the machinery at a lumber yard. The village leader, Gao Zaimeng, said his house -- a two-story concrete structure that is one of the best in town -- shook violently. "More violent than in 2008," he said. Although his house was intact, he was too nervous to risk sleeping or cooking inside, he said.

About 50 soldiers attached to the People's Liberation Army's regional headquarters in Chengdu marched in formation along the main village street, armed with shovels and picks to help shore up buildings. In all, the government deployed about 7,000 soldiers and People's Armed Police officers to the affected area. By Saturday evening, there were so many rescue workers in the area that the government asked volunteers to stop coming.

China's prime minister, Li Keqiang, perhaps mindful of the criticism of the rescue efforts in 2008, flew to the area and slept in a tent on Saturday evening in Lushan County.

The earthquake shook Sichuan Province at 8 a.m., when people were rising a little later than usual because schools and universities were closed.

"We were just getting up and getting dressed in our dormitory when the building shook, and I looked outside from our seventh-floor window and saw a row of houses collapsed," Xu Yan, 22, a student at the Agricultural University in Ya'an, said in a telephone interview. "I have never flown down the stairs so fast."

The Chinese government said early Sunday that the known death toll was 174, with most of the victims in Ya'an. The ministry also said that about 5,700 people had been injured.

The United States Geological Survey said that the earthquake occurred on the Longmenshan fault line, the same one responsible for the 2008 quake. But more than 12 hours after the initial tremor, the impact seemed to be far less severe.

Chinese radio quoted an unnamed official who said, "We have a basic grasp of the overall disaster situation, and there won't be thousands or tens of thousands of fatalities."

Rescue efforts were hampered by landslides, and officials expressed concern about two barrier lakes that had formed after debris blocked two waterways.

The tremors were felt in Chengdu, one of China's biggest cities and the capital of Sichuan Province. Residents described water spilling out of home aquariums and objects like home water dispensers falling to the floor.

Yang Yubing, an executive at a sculpture factory in Baoxing County, one of the hardest-hit areas, said he was visiting Chengdu when he felt the tremors. He immediately left on a seven-hour drive to his home in Baoxing. But emergency workers stopped him when he got close to his apartment, Mr. Yang said. "They said five or six kilometers of roads were collapsed," he said in a telephone interview. "We are all living in temporary tents in the school." Badly injured people were taken to hospitals by helicopter, he said.

In the town of Longmen, another hard-hit area within Ya'an's jurisdiction, a resident, Zhang Yan, said 90 percent of the buildings had collapsed.

"About 100 people died around here," Ms. Zhang said in a telephone interview. "Rescue crews have not yet arrived. There is no water or electricity."

Xinhua quoted a hospital official who said scores of injured people were sprawled in front of the county hospital on Saturday afternoon. Firefighters in Lushan County pulled 27 survivors from collapsed buildings, Xinhua said.

The 2008 quake raised questions about poorly constructed schools that collapsed and killed thousands of students.

That earthquake prompted an extensive official relief effort and a passionate outpouring of volunteer help. But some quake-stricken residents and observers criticized the government for sending rescue efforts to the wrong places, or for failing to muster the equipment needed to lift victims from under slabs of concrete and brick. Instead, many troops and rescuers clambered over the rubble with sticks and spades.

This time, the government appears intent on avoiding any accusations of lagging behind

In 2008, officials restricted independent reporting on the disaster, but Ran Wang, a businessman, said he hoped officials would allow greater transparency. "No censorship, no cover-ups or control so the right of the people and society to be informed during natural disasters is respected," he wrote on his microblog account.

The Longmenshan fault line, which runs between the Tibetan plateau and Sichuan Basin, is seismically active. Twelve earthquakes with a magnitude of 5 or greater have occurred along the fault line since 1900, said Jiang Haikun, an official with the China Earthquake Administration.

Sichuan Province is also one of China's best-known habitats for pandas, and at the Bifengxia reserve, about six miles north of Ya'an, workers said that 20 pandas in the park were safe. "We inspected the panda area after the quake, and they were unaffected," said Chen Yong, the media relations officer of the reserve.

Andrew Jacobs contributed reporting from Beijing, and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong. Patrick Zhou contributed research from Qionglai, and Bree Feng from Beijing.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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