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Earthquake in western China kills 617

Rescue efforts hampered by remote location

A strong earthquake injured more than 10,000 in the Tibetan region of China yesterday. A man stood in the rubble of a building in Jiegu township, Yushu County. A strong earthquake injured more than 10,000 in the Tibetan region of China yesterday. A man stood in the rubble of a building in Jiegu township, Yushu County. (Xinhua News Agency via Associated Press)
By Anita Chang
Associated Press / April 15, 2010

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XINING, China — Rescuers combed through the rubble of collapsed buildings for survivors today, more than a day after strong earthquakes shook a mountainous Tibetan region of China, killing more than 600 people and injuring thousands.

The series of quakes flattened buildings across remote western Yushu County and sent survivors, many bleeding from their wounds, flooding into the streets of Jiegu township. State television showed block after devastated block of toppled mud and wood homes. Local officials said 85 percent of the buildings had been destroyed.

Residents and troops garrisoned in the town used shovels and their hands to pull survivors and bodies from the rubble yesterday. Several schools collapsed, with the state news agency saying at least 56 students died.

State broadcaster CCTV showed footage of rescuers working at night, picking through the rubble aided by torchlights fixed to their safety helmets. A group of workers found a girl trapped for more than 12 hours under a heap of debris.

“I can’t feel my arm,’’ said the girl, who was curled up with her back to the workers. The workers talked to her and fed her water as others searched for pieces of wood to prop up the rubble that had trapped her. As rescuers gingerly pulled her out and carried her to a stretcher, she could be heard saying: “I’m sorry for the trouble. Thank you, I will never forget this.’’

Crews set up emergency generators to restore operations at Yushu’s airport, and by late afternoon the first of six flights landed carrying rescue workers and equipment. But the road to town was blocked by a landslide, hampering the rescue as temperatures dropped below freezing.

The death toll had risen to 617 by this morning, with more than 9,000 injured, including 970 seriously, and around 300 still missing. The Ministry of Civil Affairs said about 15,000 houses had collapsed and 100,000 people need to be relocated.

Many survivors spent the night in the cold outdoors, wrapping themselves in thick cotton blankets and lying on thin pads on the ground with cardboard boxes serving as pillows. Others spent the night in quake-damaged cars, covering exposed areas with sheets of plastic, CCTV footage showed.

Xinhua said temperatures in the area can fall below freezing at night.

The airport in Xining, the nearest big city (530 miles away), was filled in the predawn hours today with Chinese troops in camouflage, firefighters, and rescue teams leading dozens of sniffer dogs. They were whisked onto buses for the drive to the quake zone, which takes 12 hours under the best of conditions.

Yang Xuesong, a rescuer from Shandong Province in eastern China, said his biggest concern was the altitude. “This is the highlands. I don’t know if the search dogs can get used to it,’’ he said.

While China’s military is well practiced in responding to disasters, the remote location posed logistical difficulties. The area sits at around 13,000 feet and is poor. Most people live in Jiegu, with the remaining, mostly herders, scattered across the broad valleys. The small airport has no refueling supplies, so relief flights were carrying extra jet fuel, reducing their capacity for hauling supplies, state media reported.

“The situation here is difficult. Most of the buildings have collapsed. A lot of people are seriously injured,’’ said Pu Wu, a director of the Jinba Project, which provides health care training for Tibetan communities. “We are scared. We are all camping outside and waiting for more tents to come.’’

The local quake relief headquarters put the death toll at 589 and the injured at 10,000 by early this morning, according to the Xinhua news agency. Wu Yong, commander of the army garrison, said the deaths “may rise further as lots of houses collapsed.’’ Hospitals were overwhelmed, and rescue teams were slowed by damaged roads, strong winds, and frequent aftershocks.

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao urged “all-out efforts’’ to rescue survivors and dispatched a vice premier to supervise the effort. The government allocated $30 million for relief, and mobilized more than 5,000 soldiers, medical workers, and other rescuers, joining 700 troops already on the ground.

The initial quake, measured at magnitude 6.9 by the US Geological Survey and 7.1 by the China Earthquake Networks Center, hit Yushu at 7:49 a.m. It was followed by a series of aftershocks.